When Natasha Acoby was growing up, she says she barely knew who she was.
She knew little about her Indigenous culture as a result of intergenerational trauma. Her grandmother, along with several aunts and uncles, were in residential schools, so the details of Acoby’s ancestral history weren’t often discussed.
Not having that cultural awareness was detrimental to Acoby, who spent much of her 20s going down the wrong path, drinking and falling in with the wrong crowd. At 28, Acoby came to Ka Ni Kanichihk, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing programming based on sustaining and supporting Indigenous people and culture.
"This place introduced me to my culture and changed my life around," Acoby said on Wednesday. "Here, I was able to identify with myself and was able to find out where I came from and where I want to go."
Seven years later, Acoby is working at Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Butterfly Club, helping young girls connect to their Indigenous roots as part of YouthUnited@Winnipeg, a city-funded initiative launched this year based on the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Since May, Acoby and 19 other University of Winnipeg students have been working for school credit and pay alongside various North End organizations like Ka Ni Kanichihk to build greater understanding of reconciliation and to establish strong community relationships.
Four days each week, the students do various projects and work with those organizations, and, on Thursdays, they take part in classes with a curriculum designed to prepare them for challenges they might face once they graduate and are employed within the community.
Acoby, who identifies as Anishinaabe, says the opportunity to work with the Butterfly Club has been a rewarding experience.
With the club’s participants, Acoby discusses Indigenous history, culture and what the world was like before Europeans made contact. That knowledge isn’t always readily accessible, Acoby said.
"To some of them, it’s totally new information," she said.
Not only are children and teens around the city benefiting from YouthUnited’s programming, the working students have gained new perspectives on how the city works and how their colleagues see it, too.
"Some people in this class hadn’t really been to the North End before it started," Acoby said. "I’ve seen changing perspectives just from being in this program."
That’s not an accident, said Brian Mayes, the St. Vital city councillor who helped the program attain $200,000 in annual city funding in late 2015.
Mayes said the program’s participants were drawn from a diverse background, with an emphasis on including students from both suburban and inner-city communities.
Aine Dolin — a recent U of W grad who spent the summer working with the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre facilitating adolescent-focused programming about sexual education, drug awareness and healthy relationships — said connecting with other students different from her was an added bonus to her work.
"It allows for potential to build and maintain relationships," she said.
A program like this has been on Mayes’ radar since he ran for Toronto city council in 1991. After Mayes was re-elected in St. Vital in 2014, he met with Mayor Brian Bowman and told him getting the project off the ground was his main city-wide goal for his second term as councillor.
"I’m very proud we got this up and running," Mayes said, adding that funding is ensured for 2018. He’s hoping the program will be extended beyond then, and is looking to help start similar programs in other provinces.
With the first year of YouthUnited@Winnipeg set to wind up this week, Shauna MacKinnon, the university’s chairwoman of urban and inner-city studies, says several of this year’s student participants have been offered the chance to continue working part-time at their host organizations.
As for Acoby, she’ll graduate with an urban and inner-city studies degree in December, and she’s making sure to continue to provide cultural connections for local youth, including her two children.
"When I was in that position myself, I had no knowledge of what was really going on," she said. "I want to pass on what I’m learning."