The Indigenous Education Consultant of our school board presented our principal with the idea to take a group of students on an exchange to British Columbia. Our school, Holy Cross, had recently piloted many initiatives surrounding indigenous education, and the chance to travel to a First Nations community in British Columbia seemed like a fantastic opportunity for students who were interested. My time on this exchange, both while we were in Ontario and while we were in British Columbia, exceeded all expectations. When we travelled to the Gitxsan territory, we were fully embraced into their way of life and were given in-depth insight into their culture that I never could have predicted.

Our group consisted of high school students from Peterborough, Ontario. Most of us are currently taking an aboriginal governance course, which is why we were invited to participate in this particular exchange. There were twenty students and three adult chaperones. During the Gitxsan students’ stay in Peterborough, we set out to build familiarity and companionship. It was also very interesting to visit different areas of our own community, many of which our own student group experienced for the first time.

When we arrived in British Columbia, we experienced a blur of activity in a new place very different from our home. Some of the obvious differences had to do with the physical characteristics of the two communities; the Gitxsan territories were much more rural, towns were more dispersed and we were surrounded by expansive mountainous terrain. However, the differences between their community and my own go deeper. The Gitxsan territories we visited had a certain vibrancy that stands as a testament to their cultural resilience. We went into the exchange believing that the other students would be very different from us. We had many preconceived notions of how they would act and what they would be like. When they first arrived, we learned very quickly that we were quite similar in the way that we dressed and acted, and in our concerns and interests. However, I was more surprised during the second half of the exchange when we visited a sweat lodge. We were very apprehensive about the whole experience because we didn’t know what to expect. Then we found out that it was not only going to be our first time experiencing the sweat lodge, but it would also be the first time for many of the Gitxsan students. For me, the experience was even more meaningful knowing that we were able to share this first time experience with our new friends as they reconnected with their own culture.

This exchange was an opportunity to build relationships and get to know each other. It was an opportunity to explore common interests, learn about each other’s cultures, and help each other open up and learn about ourselves. We were nervous during the lead-up to the trip, but everyone involved worked hard to help us feel that we were a part of something great. Going on this exchange greatly impacted how I see myself and my worldview. I came to realize how much I related to Indigenous teachings and respected the longevity of traditional Indigenous culture. Both as a host and as a visitor, I had an exceptional experience that I would recommend to anyone.

I encourage anyone interested in going on an exchange similar to this one to do it.  Keep your mind open to new ideas and experiences, because there is so much to encounter in the two short weeks. Get out of your comfort zone. The best memories I have from the exchange come from times where I pushed myself further than what I was initially comfortable with resulting in the most rewarding experiences.

By Cali Brake

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