Words by Ann Ivy Male, Photography by John Cicci

Last week 15 students, their families and staff at Riverside Public School in Port Credit hosted to a group of students and teachers from Taloyoak, Nunavut. This was part of the Riverside/Netsilik YMCA Youth Exchange Program where one of its objectives is, “to help young Canadians connect to one another and create links to the rest of the country and among groups, thereby helping them to strengthen the fabric of Canadian society.”

The planning and coordination of this incredible experience was organized by four dynamic individuals: Mr. Paul Officer (principal of Riverside) Ms. Natalie Gonsalves (core French teacher of Riverside) and Netsilik Public School teachers, Ms. Shawna Thomson and Mr. Jonathon Lee (who are both from Ontario).

I feel fortunate to have been following this story for some time now. The Riverside exchange students left on their 10-day journey for Nunavut in March and I got a chance to interview the group before and after their adventure. Planning and preparation for the trip started months in advance and I asked Mr. Officer, a participant of eight previous exchanges, about some of the challenges he’s faced.

“School regulations have a tough time with some of the extreme locations and unusual events. Igloo building tends not to be in the handbook, for instance.  Family situations can offer some issues. We want all students to be involved and sometimes this requires creative solutions,” he said.

“For example, if there are family issues, we will often have children stay at another participant’s house so that they can still be involved despite family difficulties. Fundraising and time away from the school are big logistical issues that require staff and community support to overcome.”

But the benefits of such an opportunity certainly outweigh the challenges for all involved. Many of the kids from Riverside commented on the Netsilik community and how welcoming, friendly and genuine the people are. Ms. Thompson and Mr. Lee, who have been immersed in the community in Taloyoak for a year now, share the same opinion.

Mr. Lee explained that it is “really important for the Netsilik Inuit, meaning ‘people of the seal,’ to preserve their language, Inuktitut, culture and traditional ways for future generations,” he said.

It is therefore mandatory that the K-6 teachers be Inuit. The elders are also very highly respected in the community for maintaining this preservation of their culture. “When the Riverside kids were in Taloyaok, they were introduced to many traditional activities that involved the community,” he said. “Everyone from the elders, to the guides, to the host families were excited to meet the exchange kids and participate in a variety of cultural experiences—it was really great to see how the exchange affected the whole community,” said Mr. Lee.

I asked Ms. Thomson what motivated her to pursue a teaching career in a Northern community and she said, “I’ve always been interested in the Inuit and learning more about their way of life and teaching on location is the best way to do that. Also, being able to participate in this YMCA Youth Exchange Program, as overwhelming and busy as it is, certainly is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity that I will be forever grateful to have been a part of.”

Ms. Gonsalves, who has completed two previous exchanges, had a similar response. “I believe that doing these exchanges has enriched my life as a teacher by allowing me to develop relationships with community members whom I may not have known otherwise. I think it is both, important and rewarding to share the positive ways that youth can interact within their local community as well as with another Canadian community. I have learned the significant gains that our youth can make if we adults offer them a voice and if we act as facilitators of this experience,” she said.

“It truly has been refreshing to see youth from very different lifestyles interact and form lasting friendships.  It is always possible for youth to find some common ground and to just have fun with one another.  On a personal level, I am finding that the more I see of Canada, the more I develop an appreciation for where we live and the diversity that exists within our country.”

On that inspirational note, I wanted the kids to have a voice and share their thoughts and personal experiences of what it was like to participate in this incredible opportunity. So we at Spirit of the City, who believe strongly in maintaining community ties, will be sharing their stories with you in our July/August issue. Please stay tuned.

For more information on YMCA Youth Exchange Canada please visit: www.ymcagta.org.