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Participants in the August 2017 Gibimishkaadimin canoe trip paddle on Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy of Gibimishkaadimin)

Indigenous and non-Indigenous teens form tight bonds thanks to canoe trip

Participants in the Gibimishkaadimin project also supported each other through tragedy after one died by suicide.

By Sheima Benembarek

In August 2017, a group of teens paddled Lake Superior as part of a church-led reconciliation project for Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. “It caused me to challenge a lot of what I thought,” says Alex McCubbin, a 19-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont., who was on the trip. “Residential schools and what’s happened in the past have caused a lot of the issues you see today.”

Tragically, that lesson became all too real after everyone returned home. Another member of the group, 15-year-old Christian Grieves from Oxford House, a Cree community in northern Manitoba, died by suicide a few months later.

Rev. John Thompson, who serves the United Church congregation in Oxford House, says Grieves was “a fine young man.” Thompson had identified the teen as a future leader and encouraged him to participate in the project. “I wanted him to go to meet other young people from across the country, broaden his vision and to value life.”

The Gibimishkaadimin project, named after an Anishinaabemowin word for “paddling together by boat,” is a five-year initiative of three Toronto churches — Bloor Street United, Fairlawn Avenue United and Rosedale United — with the support of the United Church’s Indigenous Ministries and Justice unit. Each year, about 24 young people between the ages of 14 and 18 go on a two-week trip in the Canadian wilderness where they can build leadership skills, actively work toward right relations and cultivate connections with each other and the land. Planning for the 2019 edition is already underway. 

 The bonds the teens form, even in a short time, are strong. When the news of Grieves’ passing made it to Bloor Street United, Rev. Martha ter Kuile held a candlelight service, during which youth wrote letters to Grieves’ family and community. The trip co-ordinators and leaders reached out to all the participants, and two attended his funeral to offer their support. Grieves’ tent mate attends Fairlawn Avenue United in Toronto, and he raised $2,500 for an organization that delivers books to remote Indigenous communities — all in his friend’s memory.

Dorothy Grieves, the teen’s grandmother, says that Christian “was very happy” about going on the trip. She says that he made friends, had a positive experience and had been looking forward to the reunion, which took place last February.

Grieves was still very much present when the paddlers reunited in Toronto. They met with former moderator Very Rev. Stanley McKay, and together they talked about Grieves and tried to process their experience.

Oxford House has incidents of suicide all too often: five people took their own lives the year before Grieves’ death. Rev. Thompson explains that life in an isolated community in the north is very difficult, with few prospects for personal development. Counsellors drop in at the nursing station, but there isn’t enough time to truly connect or build trust. The community needs full-time mental health assistance, says Thompson, “not just coming a couple of days every two weeks and then out again.”

Alex McCubbin better understands these issues thanks to Gibimishkaadimin. She met participants whose families survived residential schools, learned about intergenerational trauma and listened to stories of what it’s like on a reserve. For her, Grieves’ death drove home that the crisis people hear about on the news isn’t just numbers. “They’re friends and family,” she says of her trip mates. “Reconciliation is telling the current generation that they are important.”

Sheima Benembarek is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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