Given the option to complete a high school credit in ten days on a canoe trip, two sisters from Webequie thought it would be easy.
“I thought it was going to be, not hard, but it's hard - really hard," said Deena Whitehead-Begg when she returned from the trip.
"I thought it'd be easy, but it wasn't. It was hard portaging, and having to unpack and pack up again every day,” said her sister Evalina.
Either way the two said it was fun, and they’d do it again if given the chance.
“It was fun and dope, we made new friends,” said Evalina.
Eleven youth plus four guides left Summer Beaver on July 21, travelling down the Winisk River to reach Webequie. The trip was planned to last ten days, but the group completed it in nine due to a dental emergency.
The trip was planned by an employee at Matawa Education Centre. Joey Miller has a master’s in education from Lakehead University and had done similar canoe trips with students from down south. He thought it was unfair that students from down south had that opportunity and Indigenous youth did not. Miller proposed his idea to the principal of Matawa and they applied for funding from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. With three weeks to the proposed date, the funding was approved and they pulled the trip together.
“It was great, it was a really positive experience. We saw each of [the students] come a long way and learn a whole bunch of new skills,” said Miller. “I think a cool thing about the program was trying to incorporate both lots of traditional knowledge, as well as teaching some safety skills.”
The students each received certification in introductory whitewater safety with Paddle Canada. Miller would like to see the program expand, and past students return as leaders. The introductory certification they received is a foot in the door for a career as an outdoor guide, he explained. Evalina and Deena said they learned how to go over rapids, paddle and steer properly. At first the rapids were intimidating, but then it became their favourite part of the trip.
“Swimming down rapids and canoeing, it was scary at first, until I got the hang of it,” said Evalina.
The group fished along the way, and enjoyed fresh fish most of the time. Otherwise the sisters jokingly said they ate “white people food,” dried and powdered goods such as pasta with tomato sauce. The Begg sisters said that it was challenging but well worth it. Evalina said she missed her bed, and they both missed wifi.
“Each of them was challenged in a different way on the trip for sure,” explained Miller, who was spending the afternoon interviewing students and assigning them grades. He mentioned many of them had never spent so many nights out on the land, and that many nights away from technology.
“I think that was really difficult for some of them. It was really good for them to be out there and just living more closely with the earth, and developing a stronger relationship with the land. It was a really great experience for myself and for them to be out there.”
One of the camp chaperones, Jody Mitchell, explained that she was amazed by the youth’s knowledge of the land. She felt like she was a tourist and the students were the guides. She had done canoe trips with students from down south, but not with students from the north.
“I thought it’d be really neat to travel the traditional territory with youth from the that territory,” she added.
One thing that had all the students excited was seeing a bald eagle every day along the way. An Elder in Summer Beaver First Nation blessed the youth before they left and had a small ceremony.
“I kind of have a feeling that's why those eagles were following us,” said canoe participant Davida “Jane” Sagutcheway.
“It was always flying in the direction we were going,” said Jennilee Wabano, who also participated. “That was pretty neat. To me it felt like someone was watching over us or keeping an eye on us while we were on our trip, I guess.”