Members of the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team, which is leading the knknxtəwix̌ program. From left to right: Elder mentor Dianna Watson (Anishinaabe), peer supporter Marley Isnardy (Chilcotin), project manager Ali Butler (syilx), Edna Terbasket (syilx), nurse Crystal Smallboy (Cree), social worker Tonya Robitaille (Anishinaabe/Métis), and peer supporter Alyxandra Lezard (syilx). Photo provided
A new harm-reduction program in syilx homelands aims to create culturally-safe care for Indigenous people who often face stigma within the provincial health system.
knknxtəwix̌ (We Walk Hand in Hand) is an initiative recently launched in kiʔlawnaʔ (Kelowna) for people living in vulnerable situations — particularly those who use substances, are experiencing homelessness, dealing with intergenerational trauma or are working in the sex trade industry.
While outreach and helping people on the frontlines are crucial elements of the initiative, project manager Ali Butler of Lower Similkameen Indian Band said that the main focus is making change within the system itself.
She said a specific priority is decolonizing through education and relationship-building workshops with healthcare providers.
“I’m not sure people — the general, average Canadian — actually really knows what it’s like for Indigenous people to try and access culturally-safe services,” said Butler.
“A big goal of this specific project, knknxtəwix̌, is increasing cultural safety. Everyone deserves access to cultural wellbeing.”
A 2020 report, “In Plain Sight,” examined racism against Indigenous people in the province’s health-care system, and found that there is widespread stereotyping and discrimination towards Indigenous people in healthcare at all levels — especially in urgent care.
At the same time, the First Nations Health Authority said in 2022 that First Nations people living in “B.C.” are dying from toxic drugs at a rate that is five times higher than that of non-First Nations people.
Butler said that she was motivated to apply for funding for knknxtəwix̌ last year after seeing the results of the In Plain Sight report. It was announced late last year that the initiative received $662,433 in federal funding.
knknxtəwix̌ is being led by an Indigenous Harm Reduction Team (IHRT) — which consists of Indigenous nurses, peer outreach workers, Elders and more.
“The main goal is to deconstruct colonialism and really provide a safe place for Indigenous people to access safe healthcare,” said Crystal Smallboy of Big River Cree First Nation, who serves as an IHRT nurse with Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society (KFS).
“A lot of the time, they have a bad relationship with the healthcare system. We’re trying to just make that safe place for them to come to.”
The program is a collaboration between a number of local partners that include Urban Matters CCC, the PEOPLE Lived Experience Society, KFS and the City of Kelowna.
The project, which runs from January to September, is divided into three components: outreach with harm reduction services, developing a substance use day-program rooted in Indigenous worldviews, and delivering relationship-building dialogue workshops with the healthcare sector to shift service delivery and decolonize health practices.
“It’s a starting place, really,” said Butler. “We are very hopeful that we’ll be able to build strong relations and sustain this project in community.”
Butler said that the relationship-building workshops will be rolled out in the next few weeks, with one of the main objectives to dismantle implicit bias against Indigenous people in the healthcare system, which she said negatively seeps into service delivery.
“These workshops are going to be challenging because we don’t know where everybody is at, in terms of their knowledge and their understanding of the colonial history and genocides within Canada,” she said.
“There are some very strong allies in community, and there are people who are just learning.”
Much of the work completed so far has been on the frontlines. IHRT frontline workers wearing red vests have been patrolling the downtown streets twice a day conducting outreach with Indigenous people in vulnerable circumstances.
In addition to food and harm-reduction supplies, the frontline workers also come equipped with an eagle feather, sage and smudge bowls, medicine ties and dried salmon. Smallboy said that by including cultural values in the outreach work, the hope is that trust is built and that a sense of belonging is created.
In addition to harm-reduction supplies, frontline workers with knknxtəwix̌’s Indigenous Harm Reduction Team (IHRT) patrol the streets of downtown kiʔlawnaʔ (Kelowna) twice a day with an eagle feather, sage and smudge bowls, medicine ties and other cultural elements. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“A lot of people have had some cultural experiences as a child, and it brings back good memories of that time,” said Smallboy. “Right away, they open up to you and trust you.”
As more outreach is conducted and relationships are formed, the next step is to build case-management for those who identify as First Nations, Inuit or Métis, Smallboy said. With a deeper case management system in place, the IHRT wants to support clientele with access to medication, social work and other low-barrier cultural programs or services.
“I just hope that they feel that somebody cares for them,” said Smallboy. “Just to give them a sense of hope to try to pick themselves up, to try harder and know that someone cares enough to take care of themselves more.”
The aim is that a substance use day-program will be launched in the summer, which will offer services and programs that take people out on the land for canoeing, sweat lodges, harvesting salmon, berry picking and sage picking.
“Reconnecting with culture is huge. A lot of people have been away from their culture for so long — they don’t even know where to begin,” said Smallboy.
While the project is still in its early stages, Butler said that she hopes that its impacts are felt across the board — on the individual level, on systems and organizations.
“I imagine that we will go slow and we’ll go fast. In a way, it’s like harm reduction; we want to meet people where they’re at,” she said.
“We need to do this walk together. I’m really quite curious to see what the appetite is for next steps towards reconciliation.”
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.
The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.
It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.
The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more.
Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).
Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.
Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.
“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.
“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”
Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau
As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience.
“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.
Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.
Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.
“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.
“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”
Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.
“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.
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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect
Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.
The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves.
So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops.
“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”
Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.
In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.
“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.
But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed.
At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.
“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.
Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.
He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.
In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.
“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.
A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached.
“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.
This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”
Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.
“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.
He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process.
“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.
Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.
Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.
“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.
“Honestly, it could save someone.”
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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve.
The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples.
The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.
The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door.
The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish).
On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.
Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.
The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse.
After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place.
General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.
The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.
Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.
“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.”
Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.
A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.
Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.
Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS.
“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.
Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.
“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.
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