Gwich’in Tribal Council vice-president Jordan Peterson hid few skeletons in his closet when he spoke to a gathering of youth for the YOUth Matter conference this week in Inuvik.

“From 21 to 24, I was a drunk,” he said during the opening day of the conference, which gathered youth from across the territory to help them work through challenges and get in touch with their identity. “I was on the streets here. If it wasn’t for certain people and certain experiences, I doubt I’d be alive right now.”

Now, Peterson holds a high position on the GTC, showing just how much circumstances can change.

He grew up Anglican but didn’t feel truly at home with his culture until he began to take part in drum dancing, smudging and hand games.

One of the defining aspects of his personal development was elder Sarah Jerome asking him what it meant to be proud to be Gwich’in.

“If we don’t take those things into consideration and ask ourselves what it means to be proud to be Gwich’in or Indigenous or even Canadian without understanding all of the negative impacts on us, we’re never going to be able to reclaim those things,” said Peterson. “For me, that has been one of the biggest impacts on my life.”

Baring all of the mistakes of the past was something of a theme from speakers on the first day of the conference.

Dez Loreen, manager of the Inuvialuit Communications Society, said he threw away his 20s chasing the bottle.

“For a long time, I just didn’t like myself,” he said. “I didn’t like who I was becoming. I didn’t like the things I was doing and I certainly didn’t like the way I treated everybody around me. That’s the lesson I learned too late in life – be yourself, be unapologetically yourself, but at the same time take care of yourself and take care of those around you.”

Now in his mid-30s, Loreen has learned to focus on the good things in life and manage his own mood and interpretation of the day’s events.

Participants in the conference spent four full days engaging in workshops, demonstrations, discussions and listening to speakers. Some workshops centred around learning traditional activities such as printmaking, while others talked about moderating tobacco use or dealing with lateral violence in Indigenous communities.

Other speakers included Terrance Allen and Maxine Lacorne, and scheduled for Thursday was Ellen Smith.