Stories & Features

Run brings suicide awareness, links Okanagan Nation youth to the land

Youth 'put their footprints on our land' along Lake Revelstoke to Mica Dam

Everyone seems to have a slightly different reason for embracing the Spirit of Syilx Youth Unity Run, an annual relay-style run for youth that raises awareness around suicide and violence in the Okanagan Nation. For four days in May 2017, it covered a 274 km stretch of Okanagan territory through Revelstoke to BC Hydro's Mica Dam and back along Lake Revelstoke.

For Ali Butler, who works with the Okanagan Nation's Critical Response Team, the run is about "getting youth away from the stresses that they might have at home," while creating life-long friends and meeting their elders.

For Tessa Terbasket, who works with the Okanagan Nation Alliance's Natural Resources Team, it's about the land along the Columbia River connecting youth with ancestors "who came out here multiple times a year to hunt, berry pick and to trade with other indigenous groups."

And for elder Richard Armstrong, it's about helping a new generation fully appreciate the bond between First Nations peoples and the land.

"Every little trickle of water, the small little drops, that come off that mountain turns into streams that lead to the Columbia River," says Armstrong, an elder with the Okanagan Nation. "The Columbia, as big as it is, wouldn't exist if there wasn't that trickle of water coming down.

"When I see the young people running through our territory, putting their footprints on our land, on our territory, they remind me a lot of those little drops of water that make the Mighty Columbia. They are the small, young people that make the great Nation that we are."

A financial sponsor of the Unity Run, BC Hydro operates 12 dams, maintains over 3,000 km of transmission lines, and produces over 50% of B.C.'s electricity on Okanagan Nation territory. BC Hydro Aboriginal Relations specialist Nadine Israel helped organize the run and served dinner and breakfast for the kids in Revelstoke. We also had two employees – Columbia Operations Director Richard Brittin and Okanagan Nation Senior Relationship Manager Rachelle Trent – among the nearly 100 runners who took part.

"We have an Enduring Relationship Agreement with the Okanagan Nation," says BC Hydro's Trent. "It's not just about working together on BC Hydro projects. It's also to support their priorities and things that are important to the Nation, and to gain an appreciation for their culture and their perspectives, their world views and how those differ from us as a company."

Suicide, self-inflicted injuries, among leading causes of death in First Nations communities

After 46 Penticton youth were identified as high risk in 2009, a group of Okanagan Nation youth asked for a run to promote unity and awareness around suicide and violence in their Nation. The Okanagan Nation Alliance got together with member bands and a variety of partners, to launch what became known as the Spirit of Syilx Youth Unity Run.

The first run was held in August of 2009, starting in Westbank and finishing in Douglas Lake, with more than 120 participants as young as three and as old as 70 running the relay. And it has continued each year since, with the 2017 event – from Blanket Creek Provincial Park through Revelstoke and along Lake Revelstoke (a reservoir formed on the Columbia River) to Mica Dam.

The goals of the Unity Run are to create awareness of violence in the Okanagan Nation, to promote Nationhood to youth, and to promote healthy living.

"The Unity Run is significant and important, not only to our youth, but to our whole nation, as well as to the land and the animals," says Terbasket, who's a member of the Lower Similkameen Band, during this year's run. "As indigenous peoples, when we gather together on the land, in a youth-led initiative, it's so powerful and impactful, spiritual, cultural, even political."

One of the youths in the run, Cheyana Van De Reit, said she got very emotional – especially as she ran – as she shared experiences with other youth who took part in the event. Alex Cardenas couldn't get his mind off his friends and family.

"That's why I like coming here," said Cardenas. "I'm praying for people at home, friends far away. I'm praying that everyone's doing alright."

After initially thinking, as a non-Okanagan Nation member, why she should be participating in the run, BC Hydro's Trent said she was supported by organizers of the importance of having a BC Hydro presence in the event. It was an opportunity to meet youth and elders to get their cultural perspective, and that's exactly what she got, plus a much better appreciation of the Unity Run's power.

"Many of the kids in these communities are isolated, and they come from smaller communities and towns," says Trent. "The suicide rate for youth in many of these communities is very high. On this run I saw the kids making connections with others they wouldn't otherwise meet, sharing similar life stories and backgrounds. They're are connecting and supporting each other, and you can see it happening.

"These are people that don't know me, young teenagers, from 10 to 18, were very welcoming and polite. They're incredibly respectful to the elders, and I was really impressed. It was a really amazing group of young people."

BC Hydro's Brittin has been involved in the run for the past few years, but had never run until this year. He says he got a much better perspective by running alongside teens and chatting with them in the transport vans.

"Most of them I'd talked to had never been up that way before," said Brittin, referring to the long stretch of Lake Revelstoke between the two BC Hydro dams. "It was a bit of a cloudy day, and as we were running along I was just telling them about the glaciers that were above the clouds on the other side that I'd hope they'd see, if the clouds broke, as they went further north. It's a very pretty stretch of country."