By Tawla Jaad and Rhonda McIsaac —
Bright eyed youth with sleeping bags in tow, descended upon the George Brown Recreation Centre in HlGaagilda, the evening before the opening day of the 4th Annual Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly (HGYA). They were participating in HlGaagilda’s largest sleepover of the year in anticipation of three days of intense activities, learning and excitement.
“It’s gonna be great!” exclaimed Jaasdalaas Harmony Williams, as she rushed off towards the front door. Watching Jaasdalaas rush, will become a familiar over the following three days of the Assembly.
At the Assembly, 122 youth from all over the Islands are assigned to teams to compete for $1000 prize money. As things got rolling on day one, youth crawled out of their sleeping bags and the morning unfolded in slow-mo. But that was short lived as more and more delegates arrived and met their team mates, some for the first time, others with a lifetime of memories already.
“Are you ready!!!” Xin Oolang Stan Wesley, the charismatic MC, called out through the bristling microphone system. He was greeted with low level enthusiasm, a few claps, a cheer or two, from the sleepy youth, to which he responded with the same question only louder! The youth rose to the occasion with a thunderous response jarring him into action.
Fourteen teams make up the HGYA: Team Forestry, Team Athletics, Team Mapping, Team Fisheries, Team Communications, Team White Raven Law, Team Rediscovery, Team Oceans, Team Gwaii Haanas, Team Mapping, Team Media, Team Haida Gwaii Athletics, Team Energy, and Team Haico.
First thing up was an election to form a youth council. Youth have the opportunity to run for President, Vice-president, or a Northern or Southern Representative (Vancouver and Prince Rupert reps are also invited). Each candidate makes a speech, and voting follows. This year Kobe Adams was elected President and Cole Sankey, Vice-president. North representatives were Haana Edenshaw, Mya Edenshaw, Cody Belcourt-Marks, and Danielle Stewart. Mary Williams, Rebecca Holte, Teresa Russ and Isaac Smith represented the South. Prince Rupert representatives included Kaylie Clifton, Brandon Gosnell and Desiree Delill. Vancouver representatives were Thomas Kelly and Sawsha Reindl.
The HGYA revolves around three large challenges and a few smaller ones, in which teams are evaluated on their performance and participation by Team Skilay. Team Skilay, in honor of the late Skilay Ernie Collison, awards points for all actions during the Assembly, from doing well in team challenges to washing dishes or helping out a friend. The team with the highest number of points at the end of the three action packed days is declared winner.
The first ‘challenge’ was a Local Food challenge, where teams were asked to create a dish featuring traditional Haida food as well as locally grown food. This challenge, as all of them were, was taken very seriously and kids began brainstorming and gathering ingredients immediately. The next day, each team presented their dish to a panel of judges, including one judge that was not even in the room! Each dish was photographed and sent to executive chef John Horne of the Canoe restaurant in Toronto, where it was judged on plating and creativity.
Xin Oolang described the second day of the Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly as the best time he’s ever had in his career as a motivational speaker and MC. He loved the energy that was created by the teams during this year’s Assembly, he said.
The theme this year was ‘gratitude’, which the youth fully embraced in their challenges, enthusiasm, and thoughtfulness. Smaller challenges included giving your own team an award and praising another team on their strengths, these challenges also played into the theme.
The second challenge required teams to create a photo or photo series that illustrated their gratitude towards the lands, waters, and people of Haida Gwaii. This challenge encouraged teams to take a step back and appreciate the details of their homeland.
In a twist to normal proceedings, this year visitors were mixed into the HGYA teams. A cultural exchange between Haida and Moose Factory Cree youth happened throughout the Assembly by way of sharing their experiences, from the edge of the world, to the outer edges of James Bay in Northern Ontario.
MC Xin Oolang brought along five guests, Xena Echum, Colby Kapashesit, Caleb Turner, Elissa Cheechoo and Ross Trapper, with him to Haida Gwaii to experience what the Youth Assembly was all about.
Caleb Turner shared his songs and everyone participated in a Cree round dance. “Lets bring that Cree style here [to the dance floor],” he said. MC Xin Oolang, was overwhelmed and summed up his feelings by sharing a story about the strong ties that existed between the Cree and Haida.
He said that “this won’t be the last time the Cree will be here,” to which the Assembly cheered. Xin Oolang said that the events unfolding at these Assemblies are historical and comforting for him because home exists under his feet here on Haida Gwaii and Moose Factory.
“It feels good to be home,” he said with a big grin. Xin Oolang was adopted into the Kuun7laanas Jaanas clan a couple of years ago.
The third challenge was the Bartering Challenge. Each team was given a t-shirt and tasked with trading it for something bigger or better, and then to trade that item, and so on until they reached an item that they could use to make positive change in the community. The community was extremely generous and items that were traded included a bicycle, argillite carving, jewelry, sports equipment, a cedar woven hat, salmon and more. Further gratitude was expressed as the final items were gifted to community organizations, including: HlGaagilda and Gaw youth centres, Jesse Jones Memorial Foundation, Haida Heritage Centre and the HlGaagilda Childrens Dance Group.
The third and final day began with youth seated in a circle. Leaders and adults were asked to stand back and observe the process. Youth President Kobe Adams introduced the teams which then stood and presented their resolution to the house which were then discussed and debated and voted on by the Assembly. The resolutions brought forward were creative, well thought out and included initiatives around mental health awareness, inviting youth from BC and Canada to participate in the Assembly, creating a youth-run radio/podcast, and programs for youth to take part in traditional tasks, such as gathering cedar bark and argillite.
A resolution from last year, calling for the design of a youth flag, was fulfilled this year. Guudangaay Tlaatsgaa Guut Jordan Stewart won the design contest and received $500 for her winning design.
“I love a new challenge and I usually only draw for a contest. So, my mom and I talked, and I originally was going to do it differently. It was hard trying to figure out how to do it for the whole island, so that’s why it’s just Haida Gwaii with youth over it, and eagle and raven for the [First Nations] youth,” said Guudangaay Tlaatsgaa Guut.
The three-day event wrapped with Team Skilay announcing the winner; Team Fisheries, which receives $1,000 to be shared amongst the team. “It doesn’t matter [who wins]. It doesn’t matter … because we’re all walking out of here with something else,” said Wesley. The Assembly erupted in cheers and Team Fisheries was congratulated for their win at the 4th Annual Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly!
Meals for the youth were prepared throughout the weekend by Denise and Frank Russ and were eagerly awaited and enjoyed by all.
Team Media’s highly anticipated music video was met with excitement, chair grabbing, and frenzied rush to the screen to view a short film about the HGYA, and a music video which featured all teams who choreographed their own segments. You can watch the music video on the Council of the Haida Nation YouTube channel.
The 5th Annual Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly will take place May 2017 in Gaw!