Gitlakdamix (New Aiyansh), BC, is a fully functioning chapter of the YMCA/YWCA and has been so since 1889! This relationship, unique-in-Canada, includes a provision that every person born in the community is a lifetime member of the YM/YWCA; those over 65 are recognized as honorary members of the Gitlakdamix YM/YWCA (the Y).
When Anglican missionary J. B. McCullach introduced the principles of the Y to the people of Gitlakdamix in the early 1800s, the Elders realized that the principles were the same as those that had guided the Nisga’a Nation since time immemorial - trust, transparency, respect for fellow man, respect for elders, honesty, healthy spirit, healthy mind and healthy body. They asked him to go to England to petition the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant approval for the community to formally adopt the Y’s guiding principles and emblem. The request was denied but the dedicated Elders were not dissuaded - in 1889 they raised the necessary funds - not easily done - for McCullach to return to England and repeat the petition. Permission was granted and the community ever since has been a fully functioning chapter of the YM/YWCA. McCullach was instrumental in encouraging and assisting the community in establishing events, activities, sports, celebrations, church activities and events that embodied the both the guiding principles and traditional protocols.
The Gitlakdamix YMCA/YWCA has two Presidents and CEOs - Alvin Wright, Luugiloon (three persons in one, three persons together) and Darlene Morgan. Luugiloon has devoted the past two decades to furthering the guiding principles in his community. Luugiloon says “Gitlakdamix is currently the only community in Canada that has this relationship with the Y. YMCA Canada has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Assembly of First Nations stating that the organization will assist in way they can, any First Nation in Canada that wants to formally adopt the guiding principles of the Y. But, you have to understand that the YMCA/YWCA is our community - you don’t see a Y office here - people expect to see a sign but there isn’t one, it is within us.”
The strength of the connection between the Y and youth is evidenced in the way in which this community was able to turn around a tide of tragedy of youth suicide in the village. “At one time, sadly, we had the highest suicide attempts and fatalities of the youth population in the Nass Valley. This touched and hurt me deeply as I was part of these children’s lives on a daily basis. The Elders, matriarchs, chiefs and councilors held a meeting in the church and came up with a plan to approach the devastating loss of youth to suicide. They called for all youths aged 13 - 29 to attend an event in the community hall. We sat them in chairs in a circle in the centre of the auditorium, then we turned off all the lights and left the room. The elders, matriarchs, chiefs and councilors and parents entered the darkened room carrying candles and encircled the youth and spoke to them and said ‘You see all this light encircling you - this is to let you know that you are the heartbeat of our nation and how much it hurts to see you attempt and commit suicide. It was so powerful; everyone was crying. That was in 2007 and we have not had a single attempt at suicide,” says Luugiloon. To keep the bridge strong between youth and Elders, and to educate the youth on the Nisga’a protocols, there is an Elders/Youth Conference each year; there is also a Youth Council that is very active in the community.
Sports and the Y are synonymous - healthy spirit, mind, body - but the impacts of technology and social media are making it difficult to keep children interested in sports. Luugiloon, a Certified Recreation Leader, works hard to combat some of negative aspects of technology on the children. He says “Our girls are growing up too quickly. It is harder all the time to keep them interested in sports. I am always trying to introduce new activities. We are re-introducing lacrosse to the Nass Valley and have just been approved for a lacrosse camp. In the 1960s, each village had a lacrosse team.” Luugiloon, however, is quick to say that technology has also a very positive effect on the community in that it is a tool that can be used for reaching out to other First Nation communities, to exchange ideas and information.
For over 120 years, Gitlakdamix, population 1200, has quietly lived by the blended guiding principles of the Nisga’a Nation and the YMCA/YWCA.
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