Every year, Global Youth Network dispatches a couple dozen teams of students from Canadian universities in May, for a month of cultural exchange. After a month in Burkina Faso in 2008 and the year after in Cambodia, I switched gears in late 2009 deciding instead to learn about communities in the country I call home. After all, some say we are the land of a thousand stereotypes yet I have little idea why. And while some may see that as humourous (one needs only to look at the Olympic closing ceremonies), for others this hyperbole holds some gravity. It goes without saying then that the thirst for truth and knowledge were enough motivation for a team of eight to prepare and depart on a month long engagement within communities across British Columbia. As anthropologist Jane Goodall best put it: only if we understand can we care. While this pursuit for understanding was inspired by Global Youth Network, it continues because of friendships and the care shown by the communities we have been privileged to visit.
Pre-departure and initial impressions
In the months leading up to May 2010, our team was immersed in a regular semester of undergraduate university courses in Guelph. About every two weeks, we would meet to discuss our up-coming month together, create bonds as a group, and fundraise for our flights with late-night bake sales and even a band night. We also tried our best to discuss what we could and what we could not expect.
Unfortunately, once in B.C., the inevitable about expectations became clear: no amount of academic discussions or flipping through books could illuminate truths the way relationships can. Despite involvement on our campus community, with like-minded organizations or people, even with the director of GYN, we still could not have expected the level of enlightenment and generosity we were shown in B.C. The transition into this new awareness could have been fraught with shame or embarrassment. Instead we harnessed our feelings together, creating a new level of openness, an openness that was reciprocated on a greater level by each community.
Some thoughts on life and community
Although every community we lived in is unique on its own, I think an aspect that resonates between them is the actual sense of communion. There were many instances when a few of us would stop for a chat with locals while walking on the streets. While these conversations were often brief, their curiousity communicated unity in that outsiders easily stood out. These instances were also the source of warmth and openness from the community, becoming even more pronounced when we would go to visit people’s homes or even partake in community events from sports to elder luncheons.
North of Victoria, in Brentwood Bay’s Tsartlip community, Mua and Marie are very active members in the community with three very bright and kind children. Their family organizes and are involved in several initiatives in the community and we were privileged enough to take part in some of them. From after school programs such as a community swim to learning about canoe races and one morning actually canoeing, the community really reached out and involved us during our stay. In addition to outings as a team or hanging out with the family, we really appreciated the simple pleasures such as communal meals, meeting their neighbours, and going on walks.
In Ahousaht’s Nuu-chah-Nulth community, on the West coast of Vancouver Island, we lived with several families. The family dynamic of my hosts Harvey and Doris was similar to home in that their three children were all graduated from high school and either working or pursuing higher education. They also had a knack for landscaping, as did a team member and I; one afternoon we lent a hand in the backyard and were handsomely rewarded with homemade sushi and pie. It was mutual: Doris was excellent at baking pies, and we were excellent at eating them. Some mornings, the team was allowed in the school to work and play with the children there. Our adoration of the kids aside, it was really great to hear experiences from the teachers, all of whom were very kind and patient with us, let alone the children. A quote from an elder in the community that still inspires me is, “Charity is not giving extra of what you have; charity is sacrificing what you have”.
In Bella Coola’s Nuxalk community, we met a very diverse number of people, from artists and carpenters to counsellors and a minister, from students to elders; and although we lived in several homes, our main hosts Julia and Chuck allowed us access to a community building to make our meals and join in on community meals which were always fun and enlightening. Community members were open in sharing traditions, inviting us to preparations for a Potlatch taking place in North Vancouver or watch the spring salmon runs from the river shore.
Among the many relationships we forged were not only people, but nature and spirituality as well. The team learned to embrace the role of spirituality in people’s lives instead of being apprehensive about it. This played out in our many group discussions, the ease of which could be mirrored by nature’s serenity. Each community was host to an abundance of beautiful scenery, accessible and appreciated by all. Sometimes we would go on hikes or tell our life stories on the beach, complete with candles to create the perfect story-telling atmosphere.
A GYN university team tradition is the sharing of life stories. Every team member has the opportunity to share their entire life’s story with the rest of the team at some point during the trip. Remarkably, the telling of these stories reflects some of the founding principles of GYN, fostering humility, empathy, and compassion. Not coincidentally, these were values shared, and appreciated, in every community.
Though our trip was punctuated by story-telling within the team, what stood out the most was the sharing of stories between community members, especially elders, and our relationships with them. Life stories from the community that we were lucky enough to hear part of were equally humbling, empathizing and compassionate experiences. The clarity with which some elders would recall their lives and the honesty with which they conveyed them were truly eye-opening to the team.
Reflections of education and home
In the midst of cross-cultural exchange it seems that one learns serendipitously most about themselves. At the end of May, a team member was surprised by this revelation saying “I learned more about myself than anyone else”. Whether generated by the wealth of culture or new friendships, this is a realization I’m familiar with as well. Nonetheless, we gained innumerably from the plethora of knowledge at our disposal in thanks to the friendships made in each community.
While the trip was educational and enlightening beyond our wildest hopes, I did not anticipate the amount of learning that was to happen upon return. Returning to life in the city provided a renewed contrast from which to understand people’s perceptions of Canada’s diversity. For the most part I learned from hearing, and responding to, people’s inquiries. From family to friends, everyone was interested. This was to me a positive response; what more could I ask for than genuine interest from my peers and relatives? However, underlying this interest made another matter more clear to me.
Typically, GYN excursions into other communities had presented tangible opportunities from stories of teaching English or building something these were stories that people could relate to and understand. The kind of expectation that I had dealt with before the trip was still real for others. Incidentally, some reactions from others were equally upsetting and confusing: “What do you mean, you didn’t do anything?” Like when we first entered the communities, the emotions first experienced once home could be fraught by shame and embarrassment, or harnessed to my advantage. What these moments of misunderstanding became instead were moments of opportunity and understanding.
A nurse in one community commented that some people are pathological helpers, their intentions are good, but they forget humanism in its truest form: friendships. This reality became clear over the course of the month for some, but for me, it is a reality that has been forming in the last few years. It doesn’t matter what ‘culture’ is, or where it is for that matter, relationships are the source of accomplishment, the feeling that one seeks out of life, and this is the underlying culture of all humans.
In this rich tapestry of the country I am lucky to call home, I will continue striving for knowledge. In the communities that I have been fortunate enough to live in, many questions were answered. More questions however, were raised. Regardless, I felt that this was a GYN university team program in its truest sense. There were moments of exchange, moments of vulnerability and moments of ecstasy. I felt like I had something to contribute and share in my own community upon return.
Drawing back to my experiences this year, from the Olympics to the month of May, what I am more aware of is the importance of community in Canada. While stereotypes may persist, it does not need to signal discord at the level of national unity. Rather, this year has given me the hope and courage to forge new friendships and continue this level of national understanding.
As in any culture, in Canada or around the world, friendships are the foundation of solidarity. The gravity of ‘land of a thousand stereotypes’ be damned; but love and compassion can and will bring levity to the challenges facing Canadian identity today. Like Jane Goodall before me, I want to understand enough that I can care, but also, I want to care enough that I can understand. Most importantly, I want to help our youth form friendships, and be prepared to take on the challenges of tomorrow, together.