Cole Flanagan says he can’t stop talking about his experience in the Canadian Rockies earlier this summer, and it wasn’t just about having mountain adventures.
It also included learning about topics like climate change, mental health, and reconciliation.
“It was very heavy at times,” said the 21-year-old from southern Ontario.
“There were a lot of emotions. There were a lot of people going through some pretty challenging life situations, and they all came together and shared, laughed and cried.”
One of the difficult moments, he said, was a visit to a former residential school in Alberta, where survivors shared their stories and talked about intergenerational trauma.
“Being there made it very different.”
Flanagan was participating in Howl, a program that gives young people between the ages of 17 and 30 the opportunity to learn from indigenous knowledge keepers, scientists and wellness experts. Offered in camps from one week to three month semesters in the Rocky Mountains, Maritimes, and Yukon.
Adam Robb, founder and co-director, said he came up with the program during the COVID-19 pandemic after having been a high school teacher in Calgary for 15 years.
“I was teaching online from home and watching the youth at home, trying to connect with them and help them during a pretty isolated time,” he said.
“I had been thinking about this question of what happens to young people after they leave the high school gates for a long time. It’s a big question that we don’t think about in enough detail.”
In Canada, he said, high school students typically go to college, travel or stay home and save money.
Statistics Canada said in a May 2022 report that 12.5 percent of those who later enrolled in a post-secondary institution took a gap year.
Robb said he saw a growing need for young people to gain some experience in life before making decisions about their future.
“Never before as in the last four or five years as a teacher have I had so many students come up to me concerned about things like climate change, concerned about big social things like Black Lives Matter and Truth and Reconciliation,” he said. “They just feel this immense anxiety about the state of things.”
Howl, he said, offers them experience to take action and make their community a better place.
“Where are your typical non-indigenous youth going to learn how to develop relationships with indigenous people?” Robb said. “Young people want answers on how to really move this forward, but they don’t have the opportunities.”
Howl co-director Daryl Kootenay, an indigenous leader with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, said he got involved because it aligned with the work he was doing in his community.
“I myself have been through a very Howl-like program in developing countries that led me to be the leader I am today,” he said. “I’ve always been someone who wanted to help others do the same.”
Kootenay said it is an opportunity to reach more youth, including those from indigenous communities, by providing a safe space to learn through traditional and Western knowledge.
“My approach is that it will work for all young people, it will support all young people.”
Kootenay, also a member of the indigenous leadership faculty at the Banff Center, said there are programs on reconciliation for adults but not many for youth.
Howl, he said, “follows up on some of the calls to action through education and awareness raising for young people, who need it most.”
Reconciliation and trauma are complex for indigenous youth, Kootenay added.
“Family members are not even ready to share their experience with their own family,” he said. “By creating this program where we take you to see a residential school, to hear from residential school survivors who are ready to share their story, it deepens your knowledge.”
Some, he said, don’t believe they are exposed to intergenerational trauma, but leave the show with an understanding that helps them recognize it in their own family or community.
“It would help them be in a position to make better decisions by building a community and being a part of the community.”
Participants in the program said they have learned a lot.
“I definitely have a new appreciation for the struggles that indigenous peoples face and the lack of support they have from the community at large,” Flanagan said.
“I didn’t know a lot of indigenous people before the trip, like almost zero, and becoming friends with the locals and Howl staff members who are indigenous and hearing some of their stories and what’s going on in their communities was very eye-opening.”
Ally Macdonald, 26, has attended Howl as a participant and part-time staff member.
“I describe it as an adult excursion,” he said.
She has learned from indigenous elders, she said, as well as natural resource or conservation experts, and made friends with other participants.
“It was a safe enough space that we all shared,” he said. “Some people have never had a connection to their culture before and this is the closest they’ve ever had.”
Macdonald said Howl has also taught her about indigenous culture, which she can pass down to her daughter, who is part Inuit.
“I’m not connected to his family,” he said. “I don’t want her to feel like she’s disconnected at some point. I want her to grow up and know that I did everything I could.”
He said he often encourages others to attend, noting that the organizers make things easy for those who are interested.
“They know it will do good things for you, and if not right away, it will inspire you to want to do more.”