Before they get on the boat out of town, those attending what may be the most remarkable summer camp in Canada are first separated from their electronic devices.
“That’s a requirement for the kids as they leave the community,” said William Housty, who helps run Koeye Camp, a wilderness retreat where Heiltsuk youth are immersed in courses that merge Western-based science with traditional knowledge.
The goal of the program is nothing less than to inspire youth to help rebuild the Heiltsuk First Nation, which was shattered over the past century by colonization, disease epidemics and the residential-school experience.
The town, which in the past was known for its beautiful natural setting, and for its terrible substance-abuse problems, is smack in the middle of a region known as the Great Bear Rainforest.
Mr. Housty, one of the founding members of Koeye Camp, says it was decided early on that the electronic tethers had to be broken if the kids were to really benefit from the program.
You might think that getting native youth to go to a camp where they can study grizzly bears, salmon and wolves, and collect traditional medicines, would be an easy sell.
But – surprise – it turns out Heiltsuk teens are just as reluctant as teens anywhere to unplug and leave town.
“We’re just like everywhere else where there are TVs and PlayStations and cellphones and iPads,” said Mr. Housty of Bella Bella.
“That’s what we’re competing against. And we’ve always had to overcome that attitude that going to camp is just not cool enough … I mean that pressure is always there.”
But 14 years after the camp first opened, it is still going strong. And each summer, Koeye Camp is booked.
It turns out the kids in Bella Bella like being dragged off to live in a longhouse, with no downloads available.
“The thing is, once they get out there, it’s a whole different ball game for them … once they are away from their families and away from peer pressure, they open right up, and they enjoy themselves and they really learn from the experience,” said Mr. Housty.
He said many of those who attend have been encouraged to go on to graduate from high school or college. Some now have key roles in the Heiltsuk government.
Ian Gill, who has spent 20 years working on aboriginal and environmental issues on the West Coast, says Koeye Camp is the most remarkable program of its kind he’s ever encountered.
“Because of Koeye Camp, I just think there’s so much more self-confidence, awareness and strength in that community,” he said. “There was pride before of course, but it was overwhelmed by circumstances.”
He said of all the programs on the West Coast that aim to develop the abilities of First Nations to manage their own affairs, Koeye Camp “is the most brilliant thing that’s happening in B.C., maybe in Canada.”
Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor in geography at University of Victoria, says the camp does a remarkable job of marrying traditional science with traditional knowledge, and teaching young people the value of both.
“It’s an experience that just completely shapes the entire development of the youth that attend,” Prof. Darimont said. “Not only are they really jazzed on science … but they also grow to better understand who they are, culturally, and they become really proud of being Heiltsuk.”
Qqs Projects Society – Koeye Camp
Opening the Eyes of Our Children
Koeye Camp is an innovative Heiltsuk youth science and cultural camp program that takes place every summer in the Koeye Riveopen the eyes of our children to their responsibility as stewards of our land, culture, and resources”. Toward this er Valley.
Our camp’s mandate is “to nd, our camp model integrates scientific learning and cultural rediscovery into a fun, challenging, and comprehensive education program.
Koeye (traditionally spelled Kvai and pronounced “Kway”) is a Heiltsuk place-name meaning “bird sitting on the water”. The Koeye River is located 30 nautical miles south of Bella Bella in Heiltsuk First Nation territory and is accessible only by boat. This wilderness eden has been inhabited and cherished by our people for thousands of years. The immense ecological and cultural significance of this intact mainland watershed makes it an ideal place for our youth to reconnect with their culture and environment.
As Qqs is a non-profit organization, participation in our camps is always offered completely free of charge. Many campers join more than one camp each summer and return year after year.
Our campers, aged 8-15, are mostly Heiltsuk youth from Bella Bella, although we also welcome youth from neighbouring communities. Importantly, we also reserve space for Heiltsuk children placed in foster care outside of Bella Bella. For many of these kids, Koeye Camp is their first exposure to their culture and their ancestral land and waters.
We provide a safe and nurturing environment conducive to education and respect. Campers are accommodated in two modern cabins and we use the commercial kitchen at our nearby Koeye Lodge to provide the campers with three healthy meals daily.
We undertake many of our camp activities and programs inside Dhadhixsistala, the Koeye Bighouse. This impressive traditional cedar bighouse is the ideal place for campers to learn our gvi‘ilas(traditional laws), our bighouse protocol, and our sacred dances. Cultural activities also take place at several ancient village sites in the valley. Scientific programming takes place out on the land and water.
The activities of each camp are planned around a different theme. The 2010 themes were Sea Bear, Salmon Tree, Kelp Forest, and Gvi‘ilas (see our 2016 camp schedule for this year’s themes). Our camp staff teach campers about traditional practices, ceremonies, and stories relating to the camp’s theme. In addition, many of the organizations doing scientific research in Heiltsuk territory send scientists to engage our youth with a view of the camp’s theme through the eyes of western science.
Each year we also host at least one Heiltsuk cultural immersion camp, in which youth are exposed to intensive culture and language teachings. They gather a range of traditional foods and medicine plants, weave cedar bark, paddle Dasla (our traditional canoe), speak our ancient language, learn potlatch ceremonies, and immerse themselves in the customs and laws of our ancestors.
Every camp culminates with a cultural “feast” where the kids demonstrate their cultural learning by performing a series of dances and ceremonies in our traditional bighouse. Family and community members are invited to witness this celebration of our campers’ cultural reawakening. In the smoky air under the massive cedar timbers, watching our youth dance to the thunderous beat of the drum log in the firelight, one is nearly transported back in time. And yet, it is our future being created here. It’s always an emotional experience.
Over the years we have seen the impact the camps have on our youth. Campers develop self-esteem, confidence, and leadership skills. Campers are proud of their culture and proud of who they are. This will help ensure our culture will continue to be practised and safeguarded by our youth as they become leaders in our community.
Our campers also come away from the camps with a new perspective on their environment and their role within it. As future stewards of Heiltsuk territory, it is important that Heiltsuk youth have the traditional knowledge that has sustained our people and our territory’s rich biodiversity for centuries. In addition, an understanding of the principles of conservation biology provides them with the framework for modern land and marine use planning.
Finally, our investment in campers doesn’t end with the camps. We support participants right through university by providing jobs, a mentor support program, and the support of the Koeye Family. Many campers return to Koeye as camp staff and become leaders and mentors to the next generation of Koeye campers!