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On the ground with Indigenous communities fleeing a climate inferno



Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allen Adam greets Major Daniel Rixen as Canadian soldiers arrive to help fight fires in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

This article was produced through a partnership between Ricochet Media and IndigiNews

As he watched the last plane lumber down the runway, Chief Allan Adam was finally able to breathe freely again. 

He had just posted a live video from the Fort Chipewyan airport on the evening of May 31, documenting the last flight out with evacuees fleeing impending disaster. A wildfire was advancing approximately seven kilometres from his remote community, which is accessible only by boat or plane.

But the relief was short-lived. The straight-shooting leader of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of three Indigenous communities in Alberta who call Fort Chipewyan home, was abruptly hit with biting pain.

“That was the stress that hit me, right after that post, that’s when the pain came to my neck,” he says in a telephone interview the evening of June 1, between back-to-back meetings with local leaders, authorities, and firefighting officials.

Despite the searing ache in his neck, he continues to roll with the punches. The homes and livelihoods of nearly 1,000 people are on the line. It’s the first time in anyone’s living memory that the hamlet, located about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, has been under a mandatory evacuation order. Chief Adam — together with Billy-Joe Tuccaro, chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, and Kendrick Cardinal, president of the Fort Chip Métis — has stayed behind to oversee efforts to save his homelands.

“We had to get everybody out. Everything that we’ve done, that was our main focus, to get everybody out immediately. And then once that was accomplished, it was a relief for me because now we can focus our attention on preparedness (for) what’s coming.”

Smoke hangs in the sky over low water in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 2. Drought, up stream hydro and industry use of water have contributed to low water — and increased challenges evacuating residents. Photo by Amber Bracken

Record heat waves and dry conditions have sparked an unrivalled wildfire season of destruction across the country, affecting almost every province and territory.

In May, roughly 2.7 million hectares of forest — an area equal to about five million football fields — were burned to the ground in Canada, said Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair at a press conference. Over the last 10 years, the average number of hectares burned in the same month was just 150,000.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told reporters at the same press conference that the rampant infernos are caused by climate change.

“It’s a simple fact that Canada is experiencing the impacts of climate change, including more frequent and more extreme wildfires,” he said.

A firefighter works in the threatened area of Allison Bay in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 2. Over 1,000 people have been evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Photo by Amber Bracken

Chief Adam is all too familiar with the consequences of climate change, and particularly the contamination of his territories. Fort Chipewyan, commonly referred to as Fort Chip, is downstream from Alberta’s notorious tar sands, one of the largest oil developments in the world.

The settlement is perched on the tip of Lake Athabasca, the largest body of water in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Known as the oldest community in the province, it once served as a hub for the Indigenous Nations who live up and down the mighty Athabasca River, as well as the European settlers who trekked north for trade. But since commercial-scale extraction of the oil sands began in 1967 — and then expanded to fuel the economic wellspring of Canada — the water, land and air quality of the vast Indigenous territories downstream has deteriorated.

Finding deformed fish and polluted water here is a normal occurrence. And dozens of Fort Chip residents have succumbed to a rare strain of bile duct cancer. 

In April, Chief Adam testified before a House of Commons committee hearing in Ottawa to decry the release of millions of litres of toxic tailings waste in two separate incidents involving Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine. Just weeks later, Suncor reported it had released almost six million litres of contaminated water into a tributary of the Athabasca River. 

Earlier, Adam had predicted his community would become environmental refugees.

Now, Fort Chip could be swept away by out-of-control flames.

“I tell them this,” he said during the phone interview, explaining that he confronts the Alberta and federal governments about climate change.

“I speak with them all the time and we hold them very accountable. The climate change issue is not going to go away. And we’re gonna have to deal with it — and you (governments) are gonna have to deal with us.”

Feels like 2016 all over again

People outside a hotel housing evacuees in Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 1. Over 1,000 people have been evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Photo by Amber Bracken

About 250 kilometres south from Fort Chip, the boat launch in Fort McKay First Nation — a community of 800 people about 58 kilometres north of Fort McMurray — is clogged with dozens of docked boats. Volunteers are patrolling the river day and night, searching for evacuees whose boats may have gotten stuck or broken down.

It’s déjà vu for Fort McKay residents, who are survivors of the worst natural disaster in Canadian history. They were forced to flee their homes during the massive 2016 blaze that ravaged Fort McMurray. 

Even so, ushering Fort Chip evacuees to safety is a treacherous undertaking, according to Fort McKay Métis Nation president Ron Quintal.

“There’s a combination of the smoke, of the water coming up and having sticks in the water and travelling at night — it’s a concern for damage to your boat and could cause an emergency,” he says while visiting evacuees at a hotel in Fort McMurray. 

Quintal directed his staff to focus on comforting the displaced, including whole families with children and Elders who had made the eleventh-hour trip. 

Fort McKay Métis Nation president Ron Quintal with family at a hotel housing evacuees in Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 1. Over 1,000 people have been evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Photo by Amber Bracken

“We were there when families were pulling in,” says Quintal, his voice pinched with emotion. “You try to put on a happy face. These kids, they’re afraid, you know, they’ve had to leave their homes, given they’re an isolated community. And we let them know that you’re safe here, we’re here to help you.”

Jimmy Shortman, 64, waits at the boat launch for Ginger, his German Shepard, and her six three-week-old puppies to be delivered by a peace officer. He fled his home in Fort Chip by boat along with his wife and granddaughter. His beloved dog was cared for by officials in Fort McKay while he escorted his family to a hotel in Fort McMurray.

Shortman also fled the infamous Fort McMurray blaze in 2016. Now, he’s experiencing flashbacks of flames, falling ashes, and traffic jams holding back frantic passengers desperate to escape.

A former firefighter, he witnessed the moment the current wildfire ignited near his home community.

Evacuee Jimmy Shortman picks up his dog Ginger and her puppies before heading to his cabin to wait out the evacuation order with his brother Stanley Shortman, in Fort McKay, Alberta on June 1. The dogs were evacuated and cared for by bylaw, while over 1,000 people were evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Photo by Amber Bracken

“When that lightning happened on Saturday in Fort Chip, I was outside my house, sitting on the deck. All of a sudden, lightning strikes.” His brown eyes widen as he describes the jolt of electricity hitting the ground.

“It started that night, because the lightning did it. It got bigger and bigger, and the wind was picking up.”

He did not expect the blaze would burn out of control and turn so many lives upside down. He describes people panicking in their rush to get out of Fort Chip. “My wife was scared and crying. Everybody was excited to just get out of there.”

“There were 14 boats trying to get out at the same time, and that’s unheard of. You couldn’t even see across the lake — it was covered in smoke. I don’t panic, but.…” His eyes briefly well with tears. “The only thing I worried about was my wife and the little girl.”

Now, he’s happy to be heading out to his cabin along the river with his brother, Stanley Shortman, about an hour and a half south of the fire. He feels most comfortable there, as do hundreds of other Fort Chip families whose cabin homes dot the shoreside. They have a kinship with the land and water. Many, like Shortman, spend half their lives in the wilderness of their territories. 

Shortman says he will clean the yard around his cabin while he waits out the fire. But he predicts the situation will intensify.

“Look how hot May was.” Shaking his head, he emphasizes that the dry weather isn’t helping. “We haven’t gotten hardly any rain yet. Wait ’til July. Wait ’til it’s really hot. Oh, it’ll be worse. It’s scary. Maybe the whole country will burn.”

‘Praying helps’

Madeline Piche, 93, holds the rosary she evacuated with at the Elders’ residence in Fort McKay, Alberta on Thursday, June 1. At 93-years-old, Piche is the oldest resident of Fort Chipewyan and says she is praying for everyone as they navigate the crisis. Photo by Amber Bracken

The oldest resident evacuated from Fort Chip rests in her bed at the long-term care facility in Fort McKay. Madelaine Piche, 93, clutches a sparkling rosary, her milky brown eyes conveying a gentle naivety.

“I’m so tired,” she says with a sigh. “I’m scared, I was nervous inside the plane.”

Along with several other Elders, Piche was airlifted out of Fort Chip and transported to the Fort McKay facility on May 30. She’s comfortable, she says, and the food is “good here.” 

The view of the river outside her window reminds her of home.

Now Piche — grandmother of 43 and great-grandmother to countless great-grandchildren —  patiently waits for one of her daughters to visit from Fort McMurray.

She cries as she prays for her hometown, the only place she’s ever lived.

“Fort Chip is beautiful.… Praying helps,” she says with a whisper. “I pray a lot for everybody and for it to stop burning.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of displaced residents are scattered in various hotels throughout Fort McMurray. The Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Emergency Social Services department is accepting donations of essential supplies such as toiletries, clothing, diapers, baby wipes and menstrual products. Families gather in hotel parking lots to catch up on the latest updates about the wildfires and let their children play on the grass.

But essential supplies for cabin dwellers are needed. 

Riding the river

Evacuee Yancey Kaskamin loads his boat to deliver care packages for evacuees in Fort McKay, Alberta on June 2. Three boats delivered eight care packages to evacuees staying in cabins. Photo by Amber Bracken

Mikisew Cree Nation evacuees Matthew Coutoreille and Yancey Kaskamin volunteer to deliver packages of food and water to nine cabins spread out along the river. They work alongside Coutoreille’s father, Lloyd Donovan, a resident of Fort McKay. 

After sorting through various dried goods, gassing up, and loading their boats, the crew embarks on a Friday morning mission that will last until dusk.

Coutoreille, 36, has travelled the river since he was a young boy. He knows every bend swirling throughout the hundreds of kilometres of his homelands. He studies the current and weaves in and around sandbars, islands and debris to safely navigate his boat.

“My grandpa was one of the old-timers that used to come up and down this river,” he says in a calm and steady voice.

“You always have to have an eye out here. When you’re travelling with the old-timers, they tell you where the rocks are, where the sticks are and where to go. So I’ve learned from them.”

Boats navigate the smoke and shifting sandbars in the low river to deliver care packages for evacuees from Fort McKay, Alberta on June 2. Three boats delivered eight care packages to evacuees staying in cabins. Photo by Amber Bracken

The river is ever-changing and unpredictable. Coutoreille is an environmental monitor for the Mikisew Cree. He observes the dwindling water levels as a result of impacts from industry and B.C. Hydro’s damming system. It makes maneuvering the river more dangerous. 

“You can tell how much water dropped here and if it’s safe. And it’s gotten worse over the years because of water levels. Now everything is just drying up.”

A thick, smoggy gray haze blankets the horizon. Another wildfire to the east of the river a few hours south of Fort Chip is colliding with the smoke blowing in from there — as if Armageddon were descending upon the territory.

But Courtoreille isn’t afraid. He’s fixated on the task of helping his neighbours. Approaching the mouth of Lake Athabasca, he slows to assess the strength of the winds.  

“It’s going to be rough.” He winks with a slight smile and takes a shallow breath.

After pulling on a hoodie and securing the boat canopy, he confers with his father and Kaskamin. They will steer their boats in the direction of the northeast-blowing winds.

Courtoreille nods as if to reassure me as he explains his boat is designed to take on water at the bow. If the waves are not navigated properly, they can swamp an open boat or capsize it. He’s crossed the lake in poorer conditions and is confident in his ability to safely do it again.

“Let’s get ’er done!” yells Donovan.

Motors roar in succession. Courtoreille leads the way to create a trail for the ensuing boats to have a smoother ride. After a harrowing 15-minute journey of dodging full-length logs and climbing whitecaps that crash against the boat, Courtoreille securely guides us to a bay in Fort Chip.

Whirling sounds of helicopters flying to and from the small airport penetrate the stillness of the near-empty hamlet. Pickup trucks, emergency vehicles and ATVs intermittently race between the emergency command centre in the middle of town and areas that personnel are working to fireproof.

Sheets of smoke billow into the sky less than three kilometres from Allison Bay, a residential area of the Mikisew Cree Nation on the boundaries of Fort Chip. Workers have dug trenches to the lake there to make the water more accessible. 

Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro watches smoke on the horizon in the threatened Allison Bay area of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on Friday, June 2, 2023. Over 1000 people have been evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Amber Bracken

Excavators clear fields of trees and shrubs surrounding the Mikisew community and Fort Chip. Pumps connected to water hoses supply a web of sprinklers attached to the rooftops of homes and other structures around town.

At an emergency meeting that evening of approximately 200 people, including local leaders, authorities, firefighters and community volunteers, one person yells out that they will work through the night to protect Fort Chip.

Chief Adam echoes the sentiment: whatever it takes to keep the fire at bay. 

“We can cut grass, remove all the garbage and debris, and do all these little things,” he tells the crowd, appearing exhausted but unwavering.

“We will make it happen. If the fire does come into the community, we will assist in some way with the fire department,” he says. “But the forest fire, that belongs to Alberta Forestry and the professional firefighters. Now a lot of prayers are with us from other communities. Stay strong.”

After a hot meal, volunteers line up to attest to their skills so officials can enter them into a database.

It has been stressful to coordinate a community-led emergency operation at times, says Jay Telegdi, intergovernmental relations senior manager for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Yet he has been down this road before. He helped evacuate members of Fort McKay Métis Nation in 2016. Now he buckles down to make sure every community member on the ground is assigned a task.

No time to contemplate causes

Calvin Waquan in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Although they have been running short staffed, the family has kept Chiefs Corner open to help care for people fighting fire — and have given away all merchandise except for cigarettes and gas. Photo by Amber Bracken

Calvin Waquan, Mikisew Cree, is the general manager of the Chief’s Corner gas station and convenience store in Fort Chip. He didn’t question staying behind to keep the store open when others closed their businesses down and left. After kissing his wife and two young children goodbye at the airport so they could fly to safety and find shelter in a Fort McMurray hotel, he sprang into action.

He cooks meals every day for up to 150 people in his store’s kitchen and caters to the varied schedules of anyone needing cigarettes, snacks or toiletries. He’s tallying the purchases on a charge basis, having buyers sign receipts for reimbursement from the province, which he says will be covering the full costs.

“I’m here to serve,” he says while mopping the store floor.

“I know one guy in town already passed out and fainted. So I’m making sure I get a lot of fruit and vegetables in me. And I don’t want my wife to come home right now.” He stops to laugh.  “Because it’s pretty messy around the kitchen at home. But I’ve been trying to listen to what she used to tell me about taking in nutrients and vitamins.”

Archie Waquan sweeps the floor in family store in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

Waquan is a former elected councillor of the Mikisew Cree Nation. He lobbied governments for compensation and accountability from the oil industry for damages to his territories. Lately, he’s noticed rapid changes to the seasons.  

“We had the winter road come in way late this year, the water was open right until January. And now this.”

But in an active emergency, there isn’t much time to contemplate root causes. Every night since the evacuation, before he heads home to catch a few hours of sleep, Waquan sets up a table outside the store with two filled coffee urns, cream, sugar and a package of cookies for workers.

He speaks to his family daily, although he tries to avoid video calling them.

“It’s tough because it’s emotional. It’s tough on my daughter, she cries and then I start crying. The way I see fires, what’s happening with Mother Nature, it’s kind of resetting and teaching us a lesson to slow down maybe and appreciate what we have,” Waquan says. 

“And I think that’s what the families are learning and especially myself. Not having the kids being in here grabbing a slush, kids running by to go to the park or just hanging out on the concrete outside — I miss seeing the kids and all the noise that’s always going on.”

Dawn Waquan hugs Francis Hill, her friend and employee of the family store, as grandson Calvin Waquan looks on in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

 Lifelong Fort Chip resident Doris Cardinal works at the K’ai Talle Market a few blocks from Chief’s Corner. She and her husband, Happy, chose not to leave.

“This is my home and I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” she says while having a break outside the market. “I’d be afraid if I see the fire coming over the hills, then I’d run for the water.”

Cardinal is still processing the news that her cabin burned down two days prior. The home she and her husband built along the river just three years ago was their retirement plan. It was located north of Fort Chip, around the corner of what’s called Devil’s Gate, by Little Rapids, she explains.

She grew up on the land and river. It’s a special place she goes to wind down and take in the northern lights while sipping strong tea.

“Some of the leaders went up in the choppers and took a snapshot. And then my niece told me my house burned. I shed tears, I’m not gonna lie, and I swore. It was not the greatest feeling.”

Cardinal’s was one of several cabins devoured by the wildfire. Her husband vows to rebuild one day. For now, Cardinal is immersed in keeping the market afloat and lifting the morale of others on the ground.

“As long as the robins are singing, I’ll be okay,” she says with a chuckle.

Enter the army

Canadian soldiers arrive to help fight fires in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

That afternoon, the Fort Chip airport is abuzz with anticipation as local rangers, chiefs and workers congregate to welcome the Canadian military. A gray Lockheed C-130 Hercules plane rumbles down the airstrip as a crowd watches in awe from behind a metal fence.

The warplane is carrying 65 soldiers dressed in camo and combat boots ready to battle the flames. It will return with dozens more soldiers later that evening.

The encroaching wildfire is less than three kilometres away, and smoke is descending on the site. 

Chief Adam paces the parking lot while recording a Facebook live video. His long silver hair is tied back, and his shoulders slightly droop from an overwhelming cocktail of emotions. His eyes light up at the sight of the incoming army, and a grin emerges.

Fort Chipewyan Métis president Kendrick Cardinal watches military arrive to help fight fires in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

Kendrick Cardinal, the Fort Chip Métis Nation president, greets each soldier with a handshake as they march to an awaiting bus that will shuttle them to their command post.

He feels relieved. “I’m happy the army is here to help us out. It’s more manpower. With their help we’ll try to extinguish the fire as soon as possible.” 

Officials are unsure when it will be safe for evacuees to return home. As of June 8, the wildfire has scorched over 31,000 hectares, and firefighters have so far been able to hold it back from Fort Chip.

But firefighters have their work cut out for them across the country. According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, there are over 400 fires actively burning in Canada, 240 of which are deemed out of control.

The effects of the wildfires are far-reaching. A thick haze drifted into parts of the northern United States mid-week, blotting out the sun, and creating a Code Red air quality level for millions of people.

Chief Adam notes a large influx of moose flies swarming the airport. The large insects, known for sending irritated moose into a frenzy, bite chunks of human and animal flesh in order to reproduce. 

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief Allen Adam talks to emergency responders in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Photo by Amber Bracken

But it’s too early for moose flies, he says. They usually don’t appear until well into July.

It’s another sign something is off with the patterns of Mother Nature. 

“Climate change is such a part of this, everything ties into it,” he says with frustration.

He declares he’ll continue confronting government leaders who push the status quo of excessive oil production up the river, which is exacerbating carbon emissions. 

“Their let-it-burn policy has to change because it’s gonna get worse. It’s burning out of control.”

Smoke hangs over Fort Chipewyan, Alberta on June 3. Over 1,000 people have been evacuated from Fort Chipewyan as wildfires threaten the community downriver from the oil sands. Photo by Amber Bracken

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors




From left: Whitney Cardenas, Chris Ingle and Jaden Sampson were at the career fair with PIB’s fire department. Photo by Athena Bonneau

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




sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr., an 18-year-old syilx Youth from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, pictured at Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court on Nov. 3. Photo by Aaron Hemens

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’




The Sweláps Market features Secwépemc language and culturally-influenced architecture. Photo by Aaron Hemens

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.

The post Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’ appeared first on IndigiNews.

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