Vol. 80, No. 2Cover stories

A group of young people position rocks and sticks on a beach to start fires.

Survival skills

Outdoor camps bridge gap between youth, police

This group of youth participated in a wilderness program on Diana Island designed to teach them survival skills and life lessons. Credit: RCMP


Some First Nation youth in British Columbia are taking advantage of outdoor programs to learn more about the land, their culture and themselves. But the camps also provide the RCMP with a chance to connect with the people and the communities they serve.

On the northwestern corner of Haida Gwaii, the Old Massett First Nation has for years organized the Rediscovery Camp, which teaches survival skills — such as building shelters, making fires, foraging and cooking — to adolescents.

Donavan Hunter, a member of the Haida Nation, attended the camp as a 12-year-old and is now a leader. He says giving First Nation youth the chance to spend time in the wilderness helps connect them to their history. And, he says, spending time around the Fire Circle gives campers a place to discuss their concerns.

Holding a feather at the fire means a camper could speak.

"At first some of the kids are quiet. But gradually they'd open up and by the third night you'd have to take it away from them," jokes the 21-year old Hunter, who works as an educational assistant in Massett.

Making connections

The goal is to instil pride in the participants while encouraging them to learn more about their Indigenous heritage. As well, it's meant to steer at-risk youth towards good decision-making while linking First Nations youth and police.

The RCMP's role is to support the camp leaders.

Cpl. Jonathan Spooner has attended the camps and says they provided him with insight into indigenous culture.

"For me it was important to gain an understanding and to hear about their culture and story," says Spooner, who adds discrimination and relationships with police were discussed.

It was also apparent to Spooner that some campers didn't have positive attitudes towards him. He says during the 2016 camp, one of the teens "was quite against police" and that was especially evident when he was in uniform.

"I would notice a difference between when they saw me in regular civilian clothes and there was a bit of anxiety when I put on my uniform," says Spooner, who noted that apprehension abated as the camp went on. "It was just a matter of him seeing me and hearing my story as a police officer but also seeing me as a family man and a father."

Life lessons everywhere

In Port Alberni, Cst. Pete Batt and Cpl. Jay Donahue developed a program called Survival Kids that teaches young people, including Indigenous youth, about first aid, shelter building and other outdoor skills.

It was created after Batt and Donahue determined that an anti-drug program wasn't enough for young people in the

"We have to reach further than just visiting a classroom," says Batt. "The programs we've been using assume a base level of resilience. We can build more resilience using outdoor skills."

It's his philosophy that life lessons are everywhere in today's world and outdoor survival skills are one method that young people can learn them. During some activities, participants carry in their own food — water, dried lentils and rice.

"One of the issues we see with youth in our communities, is what looks like an addiction to junk food: soda, chips and fatty foods. Twenty-four hours only eating lentils and rice re-enforces the life lesson: what we need versus what we want," says Batt.

On the overnight hikes, the young people build their own shelters, light their fires and they even dig latrines. Youth get to see how their decisions affect outcomes and, in some cases, just how lucky they have it at home.

"This program opens up lines of communication between police and community partners," says Batt. "Youth begin to understand that if people don't know that you need help, they're not going to be able to give you the help you need."

Initiatives like Rediscovery and Survival Kids let young people know that community leaders are there for them if they're ever in need.

"You're able to build relationships and when we get back to town and the campers see me, they come up to me, sometimes just to talk," says Hunter, who hopes to be involved with the camp for many years.

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