Young adults seeking to learn about and build bridges with Indigenous communities will be able to do that through an online program this summer.

The Youth Ambassadors of Reconciliation Program (YARP), offered this year for the third time through a partnership between World Renew, the CRC’s Office of Race Relations, and the Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee, is moving to an online format for 2020 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, said organizers Shannon Perez and Cindy Stover, justice mobilizers with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA).

Through times of learning and interaction, the program aims to invite young people ages 18-29 into the work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada.

In previous years, this work has involved traveling to Indigenous communities to see and hear directly about the life experiences of Indigenous peoples, learn some of the history that still affects them today, build relationships, and become equipped to begin working with their local congregations to create change and to work toward reconciliation.

The first program, held in 2016, brought two participants and two CRCNA staff to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, a remote fly-in community in northern Ontario. 

Participant Israel Cooper later reflected, “I was excited to learn firsthand from another culture and to experience a way of life different from my own. I could also come back from the experience and help spread awareness of the huge disparity in living conditions between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians with better knowledge of the situation.”

For the program’s second installment, in 2018, organizers decided to bring participants into a more urban setting, and three youths engaged in a tour of southern Ontario. The group visited with the Hamilton City Council to learn about work being done for reconciliation at a municipal level. At other stops they learned about some of the history and challenges of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in southern Ontario, such as conflicts over environmental preservation versus development. 

Perez noted, “Indigenous young adults were able to join [the CRC participants]. So you had that relationship building, you had each side sharing their own stories to understand the challenges and break down stereotypes — all while visiting places of reconciliation and resistance — and we found that to be a really good combination.”

The group also heard from Indigenous and Metis elders and were able to ask questions and learn more about what is being done to meet the needs of Indigenous people in the city.

This year, to protect people’s safety and to ensure that the program can proceed without being canceled due to health regulations around COVID-19, organizers are bringing the program online, said Perez. They did not make the decision lightly but felt it necessary, considering the unusual situation this year. Despite the new format, Perez hopes the program will retain much of its impact.

Indigenous guest speakers, including Ila Bussidor, one of the authors (with Üstün Bilgen-Reinart) of Night Spirits: The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene, will share their stories and perspectives. 

The online format means they will not be able to facilitate the peer-to-peer element, said Perez. She noted, “In an online version, it takes longer for people to connect and open up. And with the timeline, we weren’t sure if we could do that well. That’s not a permanent change — that’s an adaptation that we made for this time.” 

Despite the changes necessitated by the pandemic, Perez said she is looking forward to working with the new format this year. She added, “We worked really hard to still make it a meaningful experience.”

The program will run from August 17 through 21. Each day, participants will gather via a conferencing app to learn about Canadian Indigenous history and meet with Indigenous leaders. Self-guided reflections and activities will build on what they learn together online. After the program, they will partner with a local mentor and receive continuing coaching from CRCNA staff to create a Reconciliation Action Plan to engage their home congregations.

“Churches can support by committing with the individual to what might be a Reconciliation Action Plan. They’re also investing in young adults and their learning, and giving them space to show what they have learned and to teach other people,” said Perez. She added, “A lot of people will benefit from the learning; it could reach far into the church community.”

Kayla Boone, a participant in the 2018 YARP program, reflected on her experience: “I think it really gave me direction on how to start thinking about . . . the [reconciliation] journey, and I continually pull new learnings from it. It was the most informative experience I’ve ever had. I honestly think about this program every day. It has fundamentally shaped the way I think about life, think about reconciliation, think about relationships.”

For young people wondering about the program, she concluded, “Get involved. Take the opportunity.”

The 2020 online cohort has space for a maximum of six Youth Ambassadors of Reconciliation. Because of the online format, the participation fee is just $75. (Sponsorships are available if the cost is an obstacle.) Interested young people can learn more and register by July 17 at bit.ly/YARP2020.

Anita Brinkman, CRC Communications