The Iiyika’kimaat program: A place to be brave

What does it mean to be well? Often, things like fitness, nutritious food and mental health come to mind. And for those who run the Iiyika’kimaat youth program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary (BGCC), wellness is all of those things—and more.

Christy Morgan, director of Indigenous Initiatives with the BGCC, says the Iiyika’kimaat youth program encourages wellbeing from a physical and mental perspective, but also a spiritual and ceremonial one.

“As Indigenous people, spirituality is the crux of who we are, and for many years that piece has been denied to us by policy and legislation,” she explains. “So when someone gets to experience that ceremonial and spiritual component, through an outing or learning a new skill, there’s a sense of accomplishment that they can really understand who they are.”

The Iiyika’kimaat program, an initiative for youth aged 12 to 21, encourages this deepening of cultural understanding by providing opportunities for young people to engage with land-based teaching and the wisdom of elders and knowledge keepers.

In June 2019, the BGCC partnered with a number of collaborators, including the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association, to host the Elder and Youth Capacity Culture Camp. The event brought Indigenous youth and multi-nation elders together under the rugged peaks of the Rockies at the BGCC’s Camp Adventure site in Kananaskis.

The four-day event focused on learning from the land and one another, and included teachings on ceremony and protocol, traditional activities and one-on-one mentoring. It allowed youth from a large urban centre like Calgary to escape the everyday, return to land-based teaching and build in-person connections, says Christy.

“We want to create as much space as we can for people to start experiencing some of that peace. It’s part of that healing journey we need to have,” she adds.

An Elder in attendance agreed, saying, “Events like these are saving people…Through these kinds of camps, we are using recreation to grow young Indigenous leaders who will be physically, mentally and spiritually strong.”

The Iiyika’kimaat program also offers space for cultural connection and learning right in Calgary through a garden project. Iiyika’kimaat is part of Communities ChooseWell, and in 2017, the BGCC connected with another ChooseWell member, the Renfrew Community Association, to access an outdoor garden area.

This transformed into growing food indoors in a garden tower in winter, and then planting and caring for their own large outdoor garden provided through the support of a local Indigenous donor. As youth learned about the land and harvesting healthy food, they developed curiosity on how to prepare their crops.

In 2019, with the help of a ChooseWell grant, the Iiyika’kimaat program hosted an Indigenous nutritionist to teach the youth and their families about healthy eating on a budget. The nutritionist offered cooking classes to teach the youth how to gather and prepare food that is sustainable and nutritious.

This hands-on approach to learning ultimately encourages true growth and resilience. As youth are offered the opportunity to try new things, they feel safe to do it imperfectly, and learn from the experience. In fact, that’s what the program is all about, as Iiyika’kimaat means “to try hard” or “do your best” in the Blackfoot language, explains Christy.

“As human beings we’re often afraid to try stuff and we often think we have to get everything perfect the first time—but we don’t. I think we need to get away from that fear-based stuff and just try something, whether it be a new food, a new activity or a new skill,” she adds.

Communities ChooseWell recognized this teaching approach with a Providing Health Education award in 2019. However, Christy says the award is for the youth and their growth, rather than the program.

“The award acknowledges our young people and their bravery and willingness to take a chance and try something new,” says Christy. “It really speaks to them believing in the importance of being well and finding new ways to be connected to who they are. They’re going to do fantastic things.”

By Anna Holtby (2019)