Aaliyah Pierre of Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School tries on the Olympic gold and silver medals belonging to Beckie Scott of Spirit North at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre, a program that almost didn’t continue. Western News file photo

To lend a helping hand when it matters

Sometimes a story can make a big difference in the lives of many people

Every story is unique because they all involve people. So if sometimes you can make a difference to help others, it can be a wonderful experience.

One of the more notable stories for me in 2018 was actually what turned out to be a series on the Spirit North cross-country ski program for Indigenous youth.

I first heard about the program from the manager of Nickel Plate Nordic Centre last February where it was being offered there for the first time along with two other B.C. locations.

I did two stories in March, the first a feature on the program and the second at the year-end wrap up when Spirit North CEO Beckie Scott came to visit with the kids at Nickel Plate.

Scott, based out of Alberta, was the first North American to win an Olympic cross-country ski medal, a gold in 2002 and added a silver in 2006, both of which she brought for the kids to see and hold.

Her dedication to the program is truly incredible and to hear about the difference it was making in the lives of thousands of Indigenous youth was very inspiring.

So when I got a call from Beckie in later in September telling me she didn’t what to do, having just heard from an official of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) her non-profit organization was “unlikely” to get its funding grant, it really struck a chord.

Although less than half of the funding came from the government, it was critical for the continuance of the fledgling program in B.C. The clock was ticking with the program usually started by that time.

Despite her high profile in sport and also being the Canadian member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, her attempts to talk to the minister in charge (Jane Philpott) went unanswered, so she decided to call.

I interviewed Beckie for the story, along with Penticton Indian Band knowledge keeper Richard Armstrong who was also at the year-end celebration and expressed his sadness if the program didn’t continue. I also reached out to the MPs for the two regions involved.

My other call was to the ISC office. The media representative I spoke with requested my questions in writing, which I sent.

The only definite answer I received was the selection process (which Beckie said she had been told by a government official was just a matter of “rubber stamping”) was not yet finalized and the decisions would be announced in “the coming weeks.”

That story appeared in the Friday, Sept. 14 edition of the Western News on the front page and two inside pages. The article also went to our sister papers in Smithers and Terrace, the other two regions where the pilot program was in place.

Late that morning I emailed the website and email editions to the same media rep in Ottawa. At 3:30 p.m., I remember the time specifically because the number that showed on the phone was from Ottawa where it was three hours later.

It turned out the caller was, who I like to call “my new best friend,” the minister’s press secretary calling to apologize for the “tofu” (meaning “no substance” as he explained) answer I had received to my questions.

He also told me that the answers to funding requests would likely be coming any day, not weeks from now as I was initially told.

I pressed him for more information but he would only say (because of announcement protocol) the answer was not likely the one (no) people were expecting.

When asked why the change from weeks to days, he would only say the Western News story “prompted” the government to take a closer look at the matter.

My next communication came Thursday, Sept. 20, it was an email from Beckie saying not only had Spirit North received the grant it was for the “FULL AMOUNT.”

I immediately called her on her cell and caught her during a layover at an Ethiopian airport on her way back from an Anti-Doping Agency meeting.

“Shock” was her reaction, barely being able to put a sentence together she was so happy with the news, especially coming at a difficult time with her agency work which had made national headlines.

The full amount of the funding turned out to be $1.7 million, more than three times the last grant they received.

This meant not only would the program continue and expand in B.C., but Spirit North was also going to move into other provinces.

To think that we may have played a small part in the continuance and growth of a program that touches so many kids and their families and providing them with a healthy, life-long connection with nature and the outdoors is truly what makes this job something special.

Mark Brett is an award-winning photographer and reporter with the Penticton Western News. He chose this story as his favourite to report on in 2018.

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Ncicn Kruger of Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School leads the charge in the snowshoe race. Western News file photo

Virgil Paul waits to try out his cross country skies for the first time. Western News file photos

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