“It gives you hope”: Siksika Nation empowers youth

Every August, young people from Treaty 7 territory gather for the annual Run as One Youth Awareness Week, featuring music and film festivals, sports nights and other arts and culture activities.

Hosted by Siksika Nation, about 95 km east of Calgary, the event is much more than a week-long celebration. It’s an opportunity to provide Indigenous youth with the tools, understanding and inspiration to overcome many of the ongoing effects of colonization, explains Richard Running Rabbit.

Richard RR is the recreation team lead for Siksika Health Services, and has been actively involved with the Run as One event since its inception fifteen years ago. At the event’s opening ceremonies, he says they address the goal of empowering youth to overcome adversity.

“In our language we say Niitsitapi—the real people. It means knowing the values and beliefs that we have within our culture,” he explains. “When I was younger I was made to feel ashamed of my background. But now when you see these young people and how proud they are, it gives you hope.”

And, it’s not just attending the conference that builds confidence amongst the nation’s youth—it’s engaging them as key leaders in planning the event. Ever since its start in 2004, young people have played a significant role in conceptualizing and executing different parts of the awareness week.

“The youth wanted to take ownership within their community. They brought their own aspirations, their own creativity, their own ideas, and we supported their growth,” says Richard RR. “For some young people, Run as One has been around all their life. Now, for the ones coming up, taking on a leadership role is almost almost a rite of passage.”

The number of individuals and organizations supporting the youth’s vision has only increased through the years. In 2010, Run as One became a formal initiative of Siksika Health Services, and the event is also supported by Siksika Community Wellness, Siksika Recreation and Siksika Nike 7 (SN7).

When like-minded groups come together to serve the community, there is often incredible, and unexpected, success. For example, the musical portion of the event is now recognized as the longest-running Indigenous music festival in Canada.

That success has given Richard RR the confidence to take a step back and offer even more control to the youth. He’s seen how the event has enabled young people to grow their pride and take on more responsibility.

“They understand who they are, and they’re going to be that much stronger in helping and fostering that understanding for the next generation. They’ll run with it even further than we were able to,” he says.

In 2019, the Siksika Run as One Committee was honoured with the Building Community Capacity award from Communities ChooseWell. The award celebrated the nation’s collaborative work in developing a cohort of youth committed to building holistic health through the conference.

“When I look back over the past 15 years, I think back on all the young people, older people, Elders and coordinators that gave their energy to this event,” says Richard RR. “Some of them are no longer here today, but it’s successful because they believed in it. This award is an affirmation that it wasn’t for nothing. And we really appreciate that.”