Before they get on the boat out of town, those attending what may be the most remarkable summer camp in Canada are first separated from their electronic devices.
“That’s a requirement for the kids as they leave the community,” said William Housty, who helps run Koeye Camp, a wilderness retreat where Heiltsuk youth are immersed in courses that merge Western-based science with traditional knowledge.
The goal of the program is nothing less than to inspire youth to help rebuild the Heiltsuk First Nation, which was shattered over the past century by colonization, disease epidemics and the residential-school experience.
The camp is located on the Koeye (pronounced Kway) River, about 30 nautical miles south of Bella Bella, a small, poor, native settlement isolated on British Columbia’s Central Coast.
The town, which in the past was known for its beautiful natural setting, and for its terrible substance-abuse problems, is smack in the middle of a region known as the Great Bear Rainforest.
But despite the town’s relative remoteness, the kids are just as electronically wired as kids anywhere.
Mr. Housty, one of the founding members of Koeye Camp, says it was decided early on that the electronic tethers had to be broken if the kids were to really benefit from the program.
You might think that getting native youth to go to a camp where they can study grizzly bears, salmon and wolves, and collect traditional medicines, would be an easy sell.
But – surprise – it turns out Heiltsuk teens are just as reluctant as teens anywhere to unplug and leave town.
“We’re just like everywhere else where there are TVs and PlayStations and cellphones and iPads,” said Mr. Housty of Bella Bella.
“That’s what we’re competing against. And we’ve always had to overcome that attitude that going to camp is just not cool enough … I mean that pressure is always there.”
But 14 years after the camp first opened, it is still going strong. And each summer, Koeye Camp is booked.
It turns out the kids in Bella Bella like being dragged off to live in a longhouse, with no downloads available.
“The thing is, once they get out there, it’s a whole different ball game for them … once they are away from their families and away from peer pressure, they open right up, and they enjoy themselves and they really learn from the experience,” said Mr. Housty.
He said many of those who attend have been encouraged to go on to graduate from high school or college. Some now have key roles in the Heiltsuk government.
Ian Gill, who has spent 20 years working on aboriginal and environmental issues on the West Coast, says Koeye Camp is the most remarkable program of its kind he’s ever encountered.
“It absolutely changes people … it’s changed Bella Bella,” said Mr. Gill, who is a principal with the Vancouver-based consulting company Cause+Effectcorrect. In 1999, he was with Ecotrust Canada, which raised funds to buy the site (then an old fishing lodge) where the camp is based.
“Because of Koeye Camp, I just think there’s so much more self-confidence, awareness and strength in that community,” he said. “There was pride before of course, but it was overwhelmed by circumstances.”
He said of all the programs on the West Coast that aim to develop the abilities of First Nations to manage their own affairs, Koeye Camp “is the most brilliant thing that’s happening in B.C., maybe in Canada.”
Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor in geography at University of Victoria, says the camp does a remarkable job of marrying traditional science with traditional knowledge, and teaching young people the value of both.
“It’s an experience that just completely shapes the entire development of the youth that attend,” Prof. Darimont said. “Not only are they really jazzed on science … but they also grow to better understand who they are, culturally, and they become really proud of being Heiltsuk.”