Garrette Dryneck smiles for a photo at the first annual Back to the Trail Youth Gathering outside of Yellowknife, at Camp Connections on the Ingraham Trail, on May 25. Dryneck, an 18-year-old from Whati, said he was at the youth gathering to listen. He said he plans to take inspiration from the late Chief Jimmy Bruneau and his strong like two people philosophy. Dryneck is determined to get an education while at the same time learning the ways of the Tlicho. Emelie Peacock/NNSL Photo 

A group of teenagers gather in a circle to play splat, others toss a football around and three girls sit down at the waters edge, their laughter drifting out over the Cameron River.

While this may seem like an idyllic summer-camp scene, the youth were discussing issues integral to their lives.

They were at Camp Connections last week for a four-day Back to the Trail Gathering. The event brought together 47 youth from the ages of 12 to 18, the first of its kind organized by the Department of Health and Social Services. The goal was to give youth the space to discuss health and wellness, and improve the government’s approach to the programming they offer to young people in the NWT.

GNWT employees listened as youth from 24 communities talked about mental, physical and spiritual health.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been sleeping in the bush,” said 18-year-old Garrette Dryneck from Whati, echoing what many young people at the gathering had to say. For many of Dryneck’s peers, being on the land and understanding indigenous culture was an important component of wellness.

Kristina Lafferty points out the red and purple sky she painted as part of a group wellness vision board at the Back to the Trail Youth Gathering on May 25 at Camp Connections along the Ingraham Trail. Lafferty, a 16-year-old from Yellowknife, said she is demanding leaders listen to youth and their concerns about the environment. Many youth at the first annual gathering said the land was important to their health and wellness. Emelie Peacock/NNSL Photo

“All of them they care for their culture,” said Dryneck of the youth around him at the camp and in his community. “They just got to find it in them. It took me a while. It took me a long time, like most of my life, to find out I really care for my culture, my education.”

Dryneck said he is now hooked on learning all aspects of Tlicho culture: drumming, handgames, being on the land and learning the language. Dryneck said less than 50 percent of youth from his community speak Tlicho, something he is determined to change for himself.

Kristina Lafferty, a 16-year old from Yellowknife, said an immediate concern for her was arsenic pollution. With summer around the corner she wants to go swimming but said she can’t.

“This is a message for those who see this that we’re asking – more like demanding – a clean environment,” she said, displaying a wellness vision board she and her teammates created depicting a landscape with bright green fields, a clear blue river and a sunrise painting the sky hues of red and pink.

Nature was on their minds, as was technology, as they gave suggestions to staff at the Department of Health and Social Services.

For Lafferty, the gathering was a chance to speak more freely about health and wellness than in her daily life.

“In Yellowknife we have counsellors and teachers and parents for that but we don’t feel like we should tell them,” she said. “What if it’s not confidential like I said it was and they tell my parents or else they’ll judge me?”

Youth not only came to learn but to lead. And organizer Nancy MacNeill said they are already well on their way.

“The Northwest Territories has incredibly powerful, smart, strong young people and I think that this is an opportunity and a moment for them to start making demands of the people who run their territory,” she said.

The gathering is expected to cost the Department of Health and Social Services just over $300,000.

Nick Beaulieu, a 14-year-old from Yellowknife, displays his makeshift Inuit drum he made from duct tape and twigs at the Back to the Trail Youth Gathering outside Yellowknife on May 25. For Beaulieu, the gathering allowed him to interact with young people from many places across the territory as well as talk about healthy relationships and addictions. Emelie Peacock/NNSL Photo