Star Phoenix

Around 1,000 people attended the annual White Buffalo Youth Lodge carnival and barbecue on Aug. 25, 2016

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas says annual visits to the White Buffalo Youth Lodge in Saskatoon doubled from 2014 to 2015. During that time, the centre’s volleyball program grew five fold. Dozens of youths gained employment. Thousands used the after-school program. In this op-ed to The Saskatoon StarPhoenix and in response to recent comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Thomas uses the recreational centre as an example of what is working when it comes to youth centres, and says Trudeau needs to learn before he makes sweeping statements about indigenous recreational centres and those who use them …


In his mandate letter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the government’s relationship with indigenous peoples is his and Canada’s most important. At the town hall event last week in Saskatoon, I asked the PM how he planned to fulfill this relationship. He did not answer my question, and instead claimed that recreation centres are not what young people want. His statement that youth want “a place to store their canoes and paddles” was disappointing and uninformed.

Our youth, like all people, want to feel an integral part of the whole — in their homes, schools, communities, province and country, but mostly to feel whole in themselves. Having opportunities equal to their non-indigenous peers, reconciliation and shoring up the societal and institutional gaps allowed by settler privilege are good starts.

On the subject of recreation centres, I call on the PM to examine a practical model that is working here in Saskatoon: White Buffalo Youth Lodge (WBYL).

WBYL is a non-government-funded, entirely First Nations-operated youth facility that is a safe haven for kids who face socio-economic challenges. Programs are status-blind and completely free of cost. The facility is funded by the City of Saskatoon and the Saskatoon Health Region. Programs are funded by managing partner Saskatoon Tribal Council and its subsidiary corporation the Dakota Dunes Community Development Corporation, plus the United Way, PotashCorp, and a variety of grants from organizations such as the Aboriginal Friendship Centres of the Urban Partnership Program.

WBYL responds to what youth tell us they want: sports and recreation, arts, fitness, and cultural programs. Our goal is to provide programs of the same quality as any other civic facility. Strategic programming based on the medicine wheel generated a notable spike in program attendance. Annual visits jumped from 18,000 in 2014 to 32,555 in 2015. Kids and families wanting to be part of the WBYL community and those needing services had to be turned away.

Approximately 29,100 of those visits were from youth and families for regular day/evening programming and 1,340 were visitors from the broader community. The most significant increases were for the volleyball program, which rose by 500 per cent to more than 60 participants per night. The after-school program, in which 7,354 individual snacks/meals were provided to kids, grew by around 200 per cent. A youth leadership coordinator helped bridge educational and employment success of 272 urban participants between 14 and 30 years old. Fifty seven youths gained employment. Since 2015, the Housing First program has successfully housed 21 families who require intensive support to stabilize and maintain safe and affordable housing. Children receive access to nursing and dental therapists, receive skills training certificates, summer employment, tutoring and literacy support, and access to computers.

WBYL is a beacon for the community. Events like the annual community Christmas dinner serves 1,000 hot meals every year and provides each child with an age-appropriate gift. Last summer, 900 people attended the WBYL community carnival. A back-to-school backpack program gave away more than 750 backpacks stocked with school supplies. These events have become staples in the community.

It could be even more effective with wider financial investment by government in staffing, materials and fixing the brick-and-mortar constraints. Relevant programs are key but just as integral are the spaces where these activities occur. If the brick-and-mortar is not situated in the heart of the community where access points are critical, these centres cannot support the social infrastructure where the feeling and experience of community occurs.

The WBYL model proves that indigenous people want to receive services from indigenous people, a position supported by the Kitaskinaw Report. This model should be adopted in all First Nations communities that have no place for young people to access meaningful programs and recreation.

It’s one thing to declare indigenous Canadians as threads of the national fabric and another for us to have hands in the weaving process. In our experience, approaching this administration with ideas and solutions is reciprocated by five-minute meetings with ministers. How does this cultivate the most important of all relationships?

To the chiefs of the Saskatoon Tribal Council member First Nations, a true relationship means working in meaningful partnership to arrive at solutions we helped design, and stop the imposition of solutions, as he said he would. We recognize the short window of opportunity to improve life outcomes — and thereby all people of Canada. But this can’t be achieved without meaningful collaboration.