Cadence Squakin puts on her cross-country ski boots inside the lodge at Nickel Plate.

VIDEO: Spirit North take Indigenous youth back to the land through sport

Spirit North is a program for Indigenous youth and families

Lying on the snow with his skis in the air, five-year-old Virgil Paul is busy practising his self-righting, helicopter rescue skills when something catches his attention.

His eyes briefly follow a dark grey cloud as it speeds northward across the dark blue backdrop of the mountain sky at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre.

Related: Snow time like the present at Nickel Plate

Soon afterwards his mind returns to the cross country ski lessons and he rolls over and stands up, quickly mastering the technique even though this is his first time on the pint-sized slats.

Paul and his fellow kindergarten and Grade 1 West Bench Elementary classmates are enrolled in the Alberta-based, Spirit North program for Indigenous youth.

Dawson Baptiste-Pierre of West Bench Elementary School takes a break during his Spirit North cross country lessons this week at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre. In the background is parent/volunteer Kenny Wornardt.
Mark Brett/Western News

Nickel Plate is one of three Nordic centres chosen to offer the program for the first time in B.C. They are also working with First Nations in the Terrace (Kitsumkalum First Nations) and Smithers (Moricetown Band) regions as well as the Penticton Indian Band.

“Our mission is really to transform the lives of Indigenous children and youth through sport and we’re all about creating an opportunity for children who haven’t had the opportunity before to benefit from all the great things that sport can bring,” said Spirit North CEO Beckie Scott, a cross-country Olympic gold and silver medal winner in Salt Lake (2002) and Turin (2006).

Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School is also participating in the program that, in conjunction with Nickel Plate, provides Indigenous students and their families with free passes and equipment.

This particular day the West Bench students arrived mid-morning and after a snack and getting fitted for ski boots inside the lodge it was time for lessons.

Sitting in a large circle on the snow the kids bide their time as the instructors and teachers come around to put their skis on.

Waiting for his turn, Paul discovers that by “zooming” the unattached ski with all his might it will go sliding off along the snow necessitating him to go running after it.

Invariably this catches the attention of his teacher Tanya Thacker who, like most of those in her profession, have eyes that work independently of each other and full, 360-degree panoramic capability.

Thacker quickly recovers Paul and gently guides him back to his designated place in the circle and returns to her tasks with the other kids.

Just then another ski goes zooming past her from Paul’s direction.

West Bench kindergarten teacher Tanya Thacker helps her student Virgil Paul stand up on skies for the first time this week.
Mark Brett/Western News

“I think this (Spirit North) also goes over into other aspects of their lives, a willingness to try something new,” said Thacker, who is her students biggest fan and organizes outdoor activities for them as much as possible. “They get so they know that life is about trying new experiences, some might be hard but it doesn’t mean you should give up.”

“I think this (Spirit North) also goes over into other aspects of their lives, a willingness to try something new,” said Thacker, who is her students’ biggest fan and organizes outdoor activities for them as much as possible. “They get so they know that life is about trying new experiences. Some might be hard but it doesn’t mean you should give up.”

And Paul’s fascination with the sky is exactly what Spirit North organizers want to see for their young clients.

“This is so valuable, if for no other reason then it’s just getting kids back outside on the land,” said Scott.

Finally, with everyone fitted with their boards, Spirit North community outreach leader Kevin Dunn begins class.

The Penticton professional photographer has the unique ability to not only capture the kids’ attention but keep it.

“OK now, if we’re really, really quiet,” he tells the group, lowering his voice. “We might be able to hear the birds and the squirrels who are watching us.

“Quiet, can you hear them?”

Silence.

Then, in that brief 30-second window of opportunity, he is able to impart some meaningful instruction.

The group is then split in half, each one going to a separate station where there are short ski runs.

On those runs, one being on a slight incline, the kids have to go underneath large yellow hoops — a balance thing.

Spirit North community leader Perianne Jones helps a student with the helicopter rescue techique for getting up after a fall.
Mark Brett/Western News

These stations are the equivalent of the downhill bunny runs only they are called “stuffie runs” because each skier must carry a stuffed toy (most adopted from Value Village) and then deposit the animal in a bin at the end of the run.

Inevitably there are cases where the bond between stuffie and skier becomes quite strong and extra convincing is required to separate them afterwards.

With the lessons for the day complete, the kids and adults return to the lodge to share experiences, cozy up to the large wood stove and have some lunch and hot chocolate.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from all First Nations and the Penticton Indian Band has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Perianne Jones, the other Spirit North community outreach leader at Nickel Plate. “We’re hearing back that this is very healing for the children.”

Jones too was a member of the Canadian women’s cross country ski team and is a two-time Olympian, retiring after the Sochi games.

“They’re just so happy to be able to come up here and spend time on the land and just to see the smiles on their faces,” said Jones.

This particular day the biggest smile belonged to Paul, the kid with the runaway ski and his eyes to the sky.

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Above, with snowboots secured, Cadence Squakin carries her skies to the cross country lessons. Left, five-year-old Virgil Paul waits to try out his cross countru skiis for the first time.

Virgil Paul, 5, waits to try out his cross country skies for the first time. Mark Brett/Western News

Virgil Paul with his stuffie completes his first run through the hoops. Mark Brett/Western News

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