2010 Olympic Indigenous Youth Gathering – a Historic Coming Together of Canada’s First People

February 24, 2010 • by Rebekah Wilson --- In late January, I had the opportunity of a lifetime. I was asked to represent the Métis Nation of Ontario at the 2010 Indigenous Youth Gathering in Vancouver. The not-so-secret focus of the gathering was to prepare indigenous youth from across Canada for a performance during the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. It was a life changing experience and it began in Ottawa when I spent the day working with resident capote expert Lisa Pigeau to sew my own capote. I had no idea I was capable of making something so incredible and owe Lisa great gratitude for her guidance, patience and support.

The request was that we arrive with authentic traditional Métis clothing to wear during cultural activities and performance so in addition to the capote, I wore an Ojibway Strap Dress which was made by Ruth Quesnelle of Midland. Ruth was also the artisan behind a capote and strap dress made for a new friend of mine, Jenna McLeod. I left for Vancouver on Saturday, January 30 and for two solid weeks I didn’t look back! I wasn’t too busy, however, to keep a daily journal.

I met many inspiring people including Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General of Canada; the first Aboriginal astronaut, John Herrington; the second native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics, Billy Mills; Aboriginal pop singing sensation Inez, the winner of four awards at the 2009 Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards; Ontario’s own Crystal Shawanda, a rising country music star; and Dr. Evan Adams, a former actor who is now the Aboriginal Health Physician Advisor of British Columbia. The most inspiring people I met at the gathering, however, were my peers – people just like me who proved that together, we can change the world.

Day 1 – January 30, 2010:

I arrive at my accommodation late in the afternoon. I’m told there are many more youth expected to arrive late tonight and I’m nervous about meeting them. I have never been comfortable meeting new people but I know that the point of this whole gathering is to create connections and that’s what I plan to do. My first roommate has just arrived. Her name is Janell and she’s also Métis, from Winnipeg, MB.

Day 2 – January 31, 2010:

After spending a long day in planes and airports, I was so exhausted last night I was asleep before 8pm. When I woke up, I found two new roomies had moved in. Kara is from Medicine Hat, AB and Colette, from right here in Vancouver, is the Director of Youth for the MNBC. I’m glad that I decided to take this opportunity and continue to encourage myself to meet new people. It’s empowering and I feel like my memories have already been enriched by making new friends.

We attended an orientation lunch today at Totem Hall in the Squamish Valley where we are staying. It’s been raining since I arrived and I get the feeling this is a common occurrence. The trees are covered in brilliant green moss and a cloudy mist covers most of the mountaintops in a way that takes your breath away. They call this land ‘supernatural’ – that’s exactly what it feels like!

Some of the speakers at our Orientation lunch included the Chiefs of the Four Host First Nations: Squamish, Musqueam, Lil’Wat and Ts’leil Waututh; VANOC CEO John Furlong; a representative of the Hon. Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, as well as several witnesses including Métis National Council (MNC) President Clement Chartier, Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) 2010 Coordinator Marcel Chalmers and youth representatives for the Métis Nation, Inuit Nation as well as First Nations.

Each of the speakers had equally inspiring and touching words for the 300+ youth in attendance but a few things resonated throughout.

“It’s in your hands what you do,” said one of the First Nations leaders. “You can win a gold medal in life.”

Many of the speakers highlighted the importance of our participation in the opening ceremonies - we were about to make history. Never before had so many indigenous youth from across our nation come together for a common purpose.

The experience is still so surreal. Not only are we able to share our culture and experiences with each other we will also share it with the entire world.

Day 3 - February 1, 2010:

This morning, my new friend Janell invited me to join her around the campfire. She told me there was a young First Nations man who had attended an indigenous high school and was going to sing the morning song he had learned there. It was great to hear that there were youth so in touch with their culture.

As he began to sing, several others began to crowd around. Some shared stories while others danced or played along. Jeremiah and Dallas, two of the Métis participants, played a traditional song with a guitar and fiddle. Moments like this make me feel part of a bigger, national family.

Today was also the first day that we visited B.C Place Stadium where we met our producer David Atkins, our choreographer Alejandro Ronceria and our Regalia Coordinator John Powell.

We were welcomed by the crew with open arms and they officially invited us into the Olympic family. They paid due respect to our elders who have been waiting years to be accepted as we have been today. This is a worldwide change – not just local or national – international! As they say, go big or go home and we’re not going anywhere!

We’re told this vision for the opening ceremonies has been in the making for several years. “All of you in this room right now are the culmination of a dream for me,” said Mr. Atkins, who was also the director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia.

Day 4 – February 2, 2010:

Today we received our official Vancouver 2010 Accreditation passes which we will be required to wear around our necks for the remainder of our time here.

Then we travelled two hours to Whistler village where we visited the Squamish/Lil’Wat Cultural centre. I learned today that the two tribes shared traditional land and instead of fighting over it, they agreed to share it. If only the rest of the world could do the same when faced with conflict!

We have already enjoyed many wonderful meals. We’re told the caterers usually provide pre-selected menus but for our gathering have agreed to serve us many of the traditional foods our people would have eaten like wild game, salmon and bannock. Tonight’s meal included dried salmon, venison and fried bread – yum!

Following supper, we were welcomed into the main area of the cultural centre where a representative of our sponsor Deloitte spoke to us about vision mapping. The first activity he instructed us to participate in was terrifying for me. “Introduce yourself to four strangers and ask them the following questions,” he told us. The questions were: What’s your name? What’s your passion? What do you hope to get out of this gathering? And what would be your dream career?

The first two strangers I spoke to approached me first as I froze in fear. Unexpectedly, it wasn’t that terrible. I approached two more strangers and introduced myself confidently feeling pieces of my shy shell crumble as we spoke.

The Deloitte speaker was engaging and funny. He encouraged us to make plans and stick to them, quoting a poem: “If you believe you can, you will. If you believe you can’t, you won’t.” I can and I will!

Day 5 – February 3, 2010:

When I woke up this morning, I was feeling pensive and decided to go for a walk around the grounds. I found myself by the river side. The Squamish Valley is recognized as one of the most significant areas for wintering bald eagles in all of North America. On my walk, I saw two of the incredible birds perched in tall trees. It was quiet, with just the sound of water rushing like music to my ears. The forests surrounding the North Vancouver Outdoor School feel so old and rustic, full of the old spirits of First Nations elders protecting and watching over us. This was just the refreshing escape I needed to prepare for a busy day ahead.

We started our day with cultural on-site activities such as cedar and wool weaving. Many groups started their own recreational activities like soccer, volleyball, basketball, throwing Frisbees, as well as music and story telling by the fire.

At 11:30, we loaded onto buses and travelled into Vancouver, led by a police escort as they practiced for bringing in the athletes from around the globe. We waited in the stadium for some time, watching the busy workers put everything together. It was unbelievable to see all the hard work that goes into making a positive presentation to the world!

Today was the day we’ve all been waiting for. We finally put on our regalia!

Our choreographer began teaching our routine for the athlete’s parade. Afterward, we ate quickly then dressed in our regalia. It was incredible and breathtaking to see everyone in their intricate and colourful outfits.

Everything is starting to feel real now – while also still very surreal. We did one final run-through of what we have learned so far in our regalia. Our performance in total will last about an hour and 15 minutes, the largest part of the opening ceremonies allocated for one group. Following our first full rehearsal, the director was speechless.

They also let us in on a big secret today about the Canadian performers who will be on stage during our performance – Bryan Adams and Nelly Furtado! Mr. Atkins told us that when they approached Nelly Furtado about the performance she was excited to be part of the opening ceremonies and was even more ecstatic about her involvement when she learned she would be performing with all of us. How incredible!

Day 6 – February 4, 2010:

Many of the Métis participants, while familiar with their culture and history, are not skilled jiggers. Lucky for us, one of our group members, Madeleine McCallum, is a pro! Today she set aside some time to teach us the basic steps we would need to know in order to perform to the best of our abilities on the big night It was interesting to see youth from other nations joining in as well, eager to learn more about our Métis traditions.

This brief lesson certainly paid off though. We received many compliments on how much we had improved and it can only get better from here.

Our rehearsal today was long and tiring. We did our first run through today with two other casts, the Athlete Marshalls and the Audience Leaders. Members of the audience will receive a drum-shaped kit that will contain a drum stick, a flashlight, a mini-torch and a white poncho. The white poncho will make it easier for images to be projected into the audience and be seen from a distance, the drum stick will allow audience members to bang along during the Aboriginal performances and the lights will be used for other interactive purposes throughout the show.

During moments of free time today, many of the youth took time to get acquainted with each other. It is incredible to see how empowered our youth are, how inspired they are to make change in the world. Colette is the youth director for MNBC and expressed interest in creating a national youth conference to bring together all of the Métis youth across Canada. Alicia Allard, originally from Toronto but now living in Victoria BC, is living her dream as a youth/family counsellor. Janell Melenchuk, born a Saskatchewan Métis but now calls Winnipeg home, is currently studying Aboriginal self-government and hopes to learn more about indigenous culture across the country and around the world.

All of this proves to me that we are the future and that we will change the world when given the chance. The funny part is – this is our chance!

Day 7 – February 5, 2010:

After our long rehearsal day yesterday, our coordinators treated us to a day off and we were given four options for bus tours today. Our choices included visiting Whistler and Blackcomb, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, or Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium.

Several new friends and I opted for Whistler to see the torch relay and travel up the Whistler Mountains in the gondola.

It was a nice break from rehearsals, long bus trips and jam-packed schedules to spend a day on our own. On our way to Whistler Village, we got the chance to see the hill which will be the ski-jumping venue.

My new friends Sheila, Janell and I took a relaxing ride on the gondola and took time to reflect on our adventures so far. It’s great to meet such like-minded and motivated youth. These are the types of friendships that will last a lifetime!

Whistler held its community celebration today and we were overjoyed to be a part of it. Later in the evening, we made our way to the Cultural Centre to witness the Torch Relay. It’s exciting to think that in a week’s time, will have made its way to Vancouver to light the 2010 Olympic Cauldron and officially kick off the games!

Day 8 – February 6, 2010:

We began our day with an intimate lunch at Kentizen Restaurant, a refreshing cuisine change. We were also treated to a performance by Inez, an award winning Aboriginal R&B singer from B.C. It was a surprise to also find out that one of our peers, Maddy, is Inez’s back-up dancer. Our group is just teeming with talent. Two of our other group members, Kathleen and Ann-Marie, performed a chilling throat-singing number and we observed a moment of silence for a young Aboriginal woman missing in Vancouver.

All of our rehearsals from now on will be conducted in full regalia. We are gearing up for our first dress rehearsal which will take place on the 8th in front of 25,000 audience members. We are each entitled to four tickets for family members or friends interested in seeing the show before it airs on live TV. Unfortunately, I have no close relations here in Vancouver but I am still very excited about the performance.

On the 10th, we will have another dress rehearsal for an audience of 60, 000.

Our final and official performance on Friday, February 12th will also be in front of an audience of 60, 000 with over 3.5 billion people worldwide watching us in television.. We better get our moccasins on and jig our hearts out!

Day 9 – February 7, 2010:

Today was the first and only day aside from a short meeting and practice session with our choreographer, spent entirely at our accommodations. We were shuttled to a nearby high school in our nation groups. The choreographer talked to us about being proud of our traditions and our regalia despite the fact that it may not be as flashy or well-known as that of the First Nations and Inuit groups. It’s an honour that the Métis Nation is finally getting the respect and recognition it has been fighting for and deserves! As Alejandro would say to us, ‘you’ve got to be proud, you’ve got to be present and show up!’

I spent most of my day recharging, relaxing and reading. Being here is starting to feel like home and it is hard to believe that in just a week, I will be on my way back to Ottawa.

I also took the opportunity this evening to gather around the campfire with several of my fellow delegates. There was quite a crowd and several rousing performances. I’m sad that when I return home, I won’t be exposed to moments like this. Raw expressions of emotion and culture! As a child, I thought all Aboriginal music and dance was the same but I have begun to recognize the differences between the regions. The prairies, northwest and eastern First Nations all have such unique traditions and I can’t wait to learn about all of them.

Day 10 – February 8, 2010:

Today is our first dress rehearsal. We have only 2 more performances after this – the 2nd of which is the big show! I’m starting to get nervous but feel better after yesterday’s practice with Alejandro.

Last night, some new friends and I went to the Big House, a longhouse built for the North Vancouver Outdoor School (NVOS) where students can sit around a campfire to share music and stories. We are honoured to have been invited here. One young man talked about his business venture, a plan to discover and preserve indigenous cultures around the world. Another young man talked about his experience so far, admitting that while he is sometimes loud and negative, he is glad to be here and cares for all of the other delegates as if they were his own family. We are all here to change the world but to do so we must first change ourselves and the way we see the world.

A Squamish elder sat around the campfire with us and conducted a spirit name ceremony. I was nervous as he approached me and asked my name. “Your spirit name is…” he began and paused as he called upon advice from his ancestors. “Techtechni”s”, he said, finally. “The hummingbird.” Immediately after this, I borrowed a friend’s laptop to look up the spiritual meaning of this choice and found it to mean one who achieves the impossible, one who savours the nectar of life and always sees the bright side of things. I’m a “glass is half full” kind of girl so this certainly sounds like me!

Day 11 – February 9, 2010:

Today we enjoyed a delicious catered lunch and listened to a presentation by BC Hydro. I expected it would be a presentation about their services and recruitment but instead focused more on leadership and our potential to be the leaders of tomorrow but also today. One of the speakers predicted that, much like the U.S has just sworn in its first African American president, Canada will one day soon have an Aboriginal Prime Minister. In fact, I believe that all of us in the room today will one be leaders in one way or another!

I wish I could tell everyone more about this experience and what we’re doing because it’s so incredible and life changing. We’re sharing our culture with the entire world. Nothing like this has ever happened before. I’m going to be part of history in a big way!

Today has been an emotional day for me. It has been two years since the passing of my Uncle Dave and while I think of him often, I think of him especially today and have been increasingly during this experience. I think about how proud he would be of me. I also think about others I have lost; my aunt Marilyn, who learned of her Métis heritage few years before she fell victim to lung cancer; my uncle Bob, whose Métis roots showed proudly through his love of music; and my great-grandfather, Rudy Couture, who embraced his culture and ancestors like no one I had ever met, never turning down an opportunity to share his stories with family and friends.

It is my mission on this trip to represent their impact on my life and share their pride with the rest of the world!

Day 12 – February 10, 2010:

Today was pretty low-key, beginning with onsite activities and plenty of time to relax. Our bodies are beginning to get tired from physically demanding rehearsals, very little sleep and being put in situations of high stress. It is difficult to share such small living space with new people but the strength of our ancestors lives deep inside of us – we were born to survive and to adapt!

Our first dress rehearsal took place tonight. It is a completely different dynamic to perform for an actual audience and I think this and our next dress rehearsal will better prepare us for the big show!

I have to admit that I am a little sad that I will not be able to wear my hand-sewn capote out onto the Field of Play for our performance. Our regalia coordinator, John Powell, thinks all of our capotes are beautiful and unique and wishes we could showcase them but they are much too warm to wear while dancing for in excess of an hour! We did, however, model them around the dressing room today for everyone else to see. Most people commented that HBC has been such a mainstay in our society but they had no idea of its Métis significance.

Day 13 – February 11, 2010:

We boarded buses extra early this morning - 6 a.m. Anticipation for the big day continues to build. The first event on today’s agenda was the 2010 Olympic Truce, Youth Forum Dialogue with Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada at the Vancouver Public Library. It began with a few keynote speakers, some performances and continued with an open forum about youth leadership and what needs to be done to allow indigenous and non-indigenous people to live in harmony. It was uplifting and inspiring.

We had the rest of the afternoon to explore downtown Vancouver and all it has to offer. It is a beautiful city and it still amazes me to be downtown and have such a great view of the mountains.

Our evening event was the Power of Sport Gala at the Commodore Ballroom. We were treated to a wonderful catered meal, entertainment and motivational presentations. A representative of N7, an Aboriginal partnership with Nike, talked about their efforts to encourage healthy active living in Aboriginal communities. They also presented each of us with a pair of shoes unique to their partnership that will be officially released this summer. Some of the evening’s presenters included Four Host First Nations leader Tewanee Joseph, Aboriginal gold medalist Billy Mills, a performance by Aboriginal country singing sensation Crystal Shawanda and one of our coordinators Jackie Blackbird.

Day 14 – February 12, 2010:

This is the big day. I didn’t sleep much last night, too excited about today’s events. I know it has been barely two weeks that we have been preparing for this but it feels like it took a lifetime for this moment to finally arrive and at the same time, as though no time has passed at all. It still doesn’t feel real – that I am about to share my little piece of the world with the rest of the world, alongside 300+ of my new friends!

I bought a t-shirt to have signed by all of my new friends, to take a tangible piece of this memory with me. While we sit here in our dressing room, cheers in the hallway for the arriving athletes exhilarate us. Their part in the show is our only uncertainty as we have never rehearsed with them. We’re excited about their arrival. It is surprising and humbling that they are equally excited to meet us.

Every night at rehearsal when I see it all come together little piece by little piece, I find myself becoming more emotional and more attached to the cause. I’ve always considered it important to preserve culture for future generations but I never imagined it could occur on such a large scale.

It’s almost show time. I can’t believe that this is the last time I will be performing in B.C. Place and the last time I will be wearing my regalia. It has been a tough struggle. Long hours of rehearsal, eating boxed lunches and not getting enough sleep but the culmination of this evening will be more than worth it. I’m ready to wake up tomorrow morning and feel like a whole new person, a person who can and has made a difference in this world.

There are lots of last minute preparations. We get our make-up done; ensure there will be no wardrobe malfunctions. Our regalia co-ordinator gave us a parting gift this evening: a collectible Olympic coin and a bottle of Cold-FX to fight off the jet lag! The room is buzzing with excitement as we watch live coverage of the programming that precedes our entrance. 5...4…3…2…1, Show Time!

Day 15 – February 13, 2010:

We are all exhausted this morning while also feeling energized after last night’s performance. As I exited the stage and returned to the dressing room, my eyes began to well up and I was full of emotion. Excitement about the whole experience, joy because we had just set in place a huge change for Aboriginal people around the world merged with sadness that all of this would soon be over.

We boarded our buses quickly, all of us calling family members and friends to see if they had seen us on the live broadcast. We traveled to the Chief Joe Mathias Centre for a celebration dinner and watched a playback of our portion of the opening ceremonies. It was incredible to see it in the way the rest of the world would be seeing it.

Today we visited the Aboriginal Pavilion where they honoured us and our contribution to Aboriginal culture. We saw presentations by John Herrington, the first Aboriginal astronaut; Dr. Evan Adams, the Aboriginal Physician Advisor for British Columbia as well as Inuit, Métis, First Nations and Indigenous New Zealand performances.

Next on our agenda was an actual Olympic event. We watched the Team Canada Women’s hockey team compete against Slovakia at Canada Hockey Place. It was a great way to end our time in Vancouver!

Day 16 – February 14, 2010:

Today was our final morning in Squamish. My bus was set to leave at 7:30 for the Vancouver airport. I woke my roommates to say goodbye and found myself feeling like I had known them for an eternity. Although I know I will see them again, my heart broke to have experienced these two wonderful weeks with them only to be separated from them so abruptly.

It will be good to return home, to my roots and to the people who mean so much to me but I also feel as though a large part of me will remain in Squamish, in the Valley, in those old trees and mountains and rivers.

These two weeks, full of unforgettable moments will be something I carry with me throughout the rest of my life. I can’t wait to tell my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren about how I was part of this catalyst, this momentous change in the world for all Aboriginal people.

A special thanks goes out to the Métis Nation of Ontario for supporting my involvement 110%, The Four Host First Nations for welcoming us to their land, VANOC, the City of Vancouver, our director David Atkins, our choreographer Alejandro Ronceria, our regalia co-ordinator extraordinaire John Powell, our coordinators, North Vancouver Outdoor School (NVOS) for graciously accommodating us with a place to stay and wonderful food, and most importantly our ancestors who I know, in spirit, were dancing right along with us that night, giving us the strength and power to change the world.

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