They are the future of the Cree Nation, I say to myself when I see a group of young Indigenous people.
When young First Nations people get together on a reserve, people know they are going to play a sport. In a city, when young Indigenous people get together, people think they are a gang, even if they are heading out to play a sport.
Last summer, I played outdoor basketball with the future of the Cree Nation. These are not kids, as most graduated from high school and were looking at post-secondary education.
They were calling me the “old man” until I started sinking three-pointers. Then they wanted me on their team. Many times there would be more than 20 of us on the court, giving me lots of time to talk and hang around with my young friends.
What I found interesting were the goals they have set for themselves. Most were looking at a higher education like law, medicine and the sciences.
When I was their age, my goal, career-wise, was to work in the Alberta oil fields until I could save enough to buy a truck.
Of course life’s highways took me to many destinations, but those experiences moulded a man who never dreamed past today.
The lifestyle I was leading when I was their age spiralled out of control. Something that was right in front of me was blocked by extreme addictions.
It was refreshing to see the future these young people have. Of course, some will fall flat on their faces, but I believe they will pick themselves up and start over.
As I got to know my fellow basketball players, they shared how they don’t want the lives some of their friends were living.
They told me stories of how their former schoolmates ended up dead or in jail. They recognized drugs and alcohol were slowly taking their friends. One of the female players had a t-shirt that said, “Not For Me.”
One often hears negative stories about young people. It’s not only in the Indigenous community, either. Go to any major city and youth in trouble or making trouble is a general topic.
I worked in the news business for a long time. I got to meet many people, mostly adults and seniors. Many of them thought youth were out of control, packing like wolves and hunting at nights.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not blind to what youth crime can be. Why is there crime? The answer to that is simple — survival.
Sometimes it’s for personal survival or trying to keep that starving addiction fed. I know from experience the reason youth form into groups is to watch each other’s backs.
In Prince Albert, I worked as a television news reporter on the day shift. Arlene, my partner at the time, was a teacher and sometimes she would work until midnight. When I went to pick her up, I would sometimes drive through downtown, where I would see young people gathered at a small park. One night, I decided to pull over and talk with them.
Maybe it was because I was driving a news vehicle, but they opened up to me right away. Most were in their late teens and from Northern Saskatchewan.
Some said they came looking for work, but got stuck living on the streets. I asked them about school. Some said they hadn’t even made it to junior high.
“If we had a school that understood us we would go to school,” one of the girls said.
Later I was talking with Arlene about my meeting with the youth and she said, “Why not?”
Why not have an alternative school?
Working with those youth and elected officials, work began on a school. It wasn’t long after that Won-Ska school was born. Won-Ska, in Cree, means an awakening.
A few years later, I was walking through the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education when I heard someone calling my name.
A man came up to me and said he was one of those youth I spoke with in that park. He graduated from high school at Won-Ska and was now studying education. His goal was to go back to Prince Albert to teach at the school he helped create.
Many people don’t realize this generation is the first one completely free of the many restrictions my generation faced.
In my youth, there were laws that shackled many dreams I may have had. The young people on my reserve, just like young Indigenous people across the country, have an incredible future. I believe the vast majority will take advantage of it.
Now that the snow is melting, let’s go and play some basketball.