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Let’s hear it for positive aboriginal role models

The question

As a mom and former head of the Centre for Traditional Knowledge at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa, I worry that so many aboriginal kids are portrayed negatively in the media. There are so many good kids. Where are their stories?

The Answer

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We did a Google News search on the key words "Canadian aboriginal children." Of the top 10 headlines, nine focused on the problems faced by aboriginal children and only one highlighted an achievement.

Like you, we prefer to see more celebration and less gloom about Canada's aboriginal youth. There are stories waiting to be told like those of Candace Sutherland and Earl Cook, the youth recipients of the 2012 Aboriginal Achievement Awards.

You may have seen Candace Sutherland running through the streets of your own community. In February, 2011, this 19-year-old from Winnipeg became the first teen to run across Canada.

Ms. Sutherland's Vision4Hope Marathon began March 20, 2010, in St. John's, Nfld., and raised over $2.6-million to support the Salvation Army, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Diabetes Association, and the Canadian Cancer Society.

Ms. Sutherland was born into an impoverished aboriginal family in Winnipeg. The local food bank put dinner on the table. When she was eight years old, her mother was institutionalized for a mental disorder. Fortunately her aunt and uncle fought for custody, preventing her and her two brothers from being placed in a group home or in the care of strangers.

It was around this time that Ms. Sutherland discovered her love of running. By 12 she could run more than 16 kilometres – over a third of an Olympic marathon. Her supportive aunt and uncle moved the family back to Winnipeg so she could access training facilities.

The walk to the track at the recreation complex brought Ms. Sutherland past a soup kitchen. Seeing children in the line reminded her of when her own family relied on such services. She resolved to use her talent to make a difference.

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In addition to her cross-Canada run, Ms. Sutherland has organized multiple local marathons each year to raise money for aboriginal reserve charities and donations of food for food banks. She also travels to speak with aboriginal youth groups, delivering her message: "Never give up on your dreams."

Earl Cook is also awe-inspiring.

From the day he was born, this young Winnipeg sports nut carried a burden that would have crushed most people: fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Tourette's syndrome, Asperger's, and attention deficit disorder. In June, 2007, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and had one of his legs amputated.

Mr. Cook faced it all with a spirit and cheerfulness so indomitable he became an internationally sought-after motivational speaker and educator about fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as a vocal promoter of the Terry Fox Foundation.

An ardent sports fan, Mr. Cook played on the Special Olympics floor hockey team. Losing a leg didn't slow him down – he switched to sledge hockey. He also coached a girl's hockey team and served as "Team Encourager" for a local Winnipeg hockey team.

Inspired by his story, the Detroit Red Wings and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Mr. Cook's favourite teams) brought him in as a motivational speaker, and the Wings made him an honorary coach.

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Tragically, Mr. Cooks's cancer continued to spread. The 23-year-old whose motto was "battle hard" died on Sept. 18, 2011, just eight days before he was to receive the Ace Bailey Award of Courage from the NHL Alumni Association.

Let's get more positive stories flowing. We want to hear about the inspiring young aboriginal role models you know.

Send your stories to, or post them online in the comment forum.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to

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