By Chris Marchand
As anyone who has ever set foot in a canoe knows, you can learn a lot about yourself in a tippy, unstable craft.
A pilot program in the Northwest is taking youth out of their comfort zones and into the unknown in a character development/youth engagement program they hope will spread across the province.
Special Project Coordinator for the Ontario Provincial Police, Sgt. Anne McCoy, says ‘Project Sunset’ was modeled off a program that works with Native American youth in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With 26 in-school, 26 after-school, and 13 out-of-school sessions, the program seeks to help develop life skills by exposing youth to new experiences, particularly in the natural environment. Without even mentioning drugs or alcohol to participants, the New Mexico program has been shown to reduce substance abuse/misuse by 45 per cent.
What’s unique about ‘Sunset’ is that it’s being led by police officers, a first in Canada.
“The content today is canoeing, but the intent is designed to teach very specific life skills,” said McCoy. “Of all the challenges and opportunities they face throughout the day, we can draw the metaphors back to real life and kids can draw their learning from how they perceived the experience.”
For the past four years, Project Sunset’s sister program, Project Journey, has shown significant results in reducing violent youth crime on the remote First Nation of Pikangikum.
The program demands a significant commitment from its participants, not only for their time, but in their willingness to adhere to some positive attitudinal precepts, like ‘being present’.
McCoy says the sheer amount of time spent with the kids develops trusting relationships.
“We challenge them to speak their truth,” said McCoy. “When they’re in a safe environment and we have trusting relationships developing over consistent periods of time, people share. They share with us what their needs are in life.
Sometimes when we set our goals we fail, and in this safe environment we can fail together and learn how to use that failure to develop tenacity, leadership, or just learn to let go and move on — those are skills that need to be learned so kids know they can make it through tough times and crises that they will undoubtedly deal with. The curriculum is designed to meet the needs of the youth, not the other way around.”
McCoy says that the OPP is watching the program closely to see how its practices may be adapted and applied to various locales across the province in a sustainable way.
“They (programs) are very organic and they take us where we need to go, but in Ontario there has not yet been a successful, sustainable program,” she said. “We have hired a third-party evaluator to come in and measure process and impact. It’s the first time the police are measuring a community engagement initiative. We have lots of anecdotal stories but we will finally have the data to demonstrate what is working well.”
“I love this,” continues McCoy. “I see the value. I see behaviour change. I see personality change for the positive.”
Jade Crarey is soon to graduate from Project Sunset and hopes to help with the next version of the program.
“I want to give other kids the experience I had,” said Crarey. “I thought I wouldn’t like it at first when my teacher told me about it, but it’s pretty cool. You get confidence and you learn how to work with others, maybe others you don’t want to work with at first.”
Project Sunset’s local cohort is drawn from program partner Keewatin Patricia District School Board’s New Prospect School, youth leaders are hired via Seven Generations Education Institute.