Brandon Hardisty and Dallas Thom walk into Burde Beans Coffee & Things, grab cold drinks and sit quietly on the couch on the far wall. The two youth have only been in Port Alberni for a few weeks, but already Burde Beans has become a favourite hangout.
Hardisty and Thom are visiting from Northwest Territories—Hardisty from Fort Simpson and Thom from Fort Providence—as part of Northern Youth Abroad, a charitable organization that provides travel and skills development opportunities to youth ages 15 to 22 from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
Northern Youth Abroad fosters leadership, cross-cultural awareness, individual career goals and international citizenship among the youth of the north.
The softspoken young men, both from the Dene Nation, or Athapaskan Peoples, talk about how they got here, and their goals for the future.
Hardisty and Thom have both been out of the Northwest Territories before, to Alberta and British Columbia. Thom was actually in Nanaimo visiting family shortly before he came to Port Alberni, participating in Discovery Days at Vancouver Island University (his aunt chaperones trips to VIU).
Part of the NYA program is to volunteer or work somewhere while they are in their host community, as well as learn something about their surroundings and share their own culture.
Hardisty was placed at SteamPunk Café and Coffee House with owner Kevin Wright; Thom at Stepping Stones inside the Hilton Centre.
Thom jumped at the opportunity to get away from the town he lives in. “A lot of stuff happens and I don’t want to be involved,” he said, adding that the drug culture has been a threat for him before.
“My grandparents encouraged me to go (with NYA) because they knew what was happening.”
Both Hardisty and Thom have ambitious goals for their future: Hardisty wants to study medicine—he loves science—and Thom wants to become a pilot. Both want to move away from the north for their post-secondary education.
Hardisty wants to go “probably on the Island” in a few years. “I was looking at taking my Bachelor of Science (at VIU) and apply to medical school in Alberta.”
Port Alberni teacher Sarah Williams is the link between the Island city and the Northwest Territories. “I taught in the Arctic for two and a half years and we’ve been back for two and a half years,” she said.
“One of my colleagues up north was looking for host families.”
Williams and her family lived in Nunavut, learning about the northern culture. That made them an ideal host family on Vancouver Island, says Williams.
“Everyone who has been up north as an idea of the immense culture shock kids from up there go through…it’s as different as you can get,” she says. “We felt it when we were living up there. I’ve lived other places in the world and they didn’t compare to living up there.”
In the Arctic Circle where she was teaching, “every community was fly in only, communities of 1,000 and everybody speaks Inuktitut.”
Last year, Williams’ family hosted a student from Ulukhaktok, NT. Williams said learning the culture is a two-way street for her kids as well as the youth they host.