What does it mean to be Canadian?
That very question can spark heated and insightful discussions about everything we think is Canadian, from red coffee cups bearing a certain hockey player’s name, to local and national landmarks, to the way we travel outside of our country.
But for a few days in June, I got to witness what being Canadian means to a few lucky youth who traveled from the bustling city of Toronto to the quiet, serene haven of Grand Bank, Newfoundland as part of the YMCA’s Youth Exchanges Canada Program, which facilitates cultural and educational exchanges for youth between the ages of 12-17 across Canada.
Many of the youth I traveled with from the Etobicoke-based Rathburn Area Youth group, had rarely traveled beyond their community. Some were excited to be flying on a plane for the first time. Others, though they had traveled by plane, were apprehensive about what kinds of food they were going to eat.
After a 3 hour flight and 3 hour bus ride from St. John’s, we finally pulled up to the Community Youth Network’s headquarters, a former school they had turned into a bustling youth centre. The Grand Bank youth, having traveled to Toronto earlier in March, were excited to see some of their friends again, meet new ones and make new memories as they hosted them in their hometown.
As an amateur photographer, one of my favourite things to do is to observe people interact—with each other, with nature, with their new surroundings. And during this exchange, there was much of that going around. Grand Bank is a small community of just over 2,500 people—and every single one of them seemed to know that there was a group from Toronto here to see and experience their lovely town. Many were welcoming, friendly and willing to help at a moment’s notice.
Most of all, the youth, slowly getting used to driving to some places and walking to most, smelling the Atlantic Ocean in the air, and hearing Newfoundland slang being spoken, were learning that their version of life in Canada was strikingly different from someone else’s, who while also different, had more in common than they originally thought.
On Newfoundland Night, where the Grand Bank youth organized a Jiggs’ dinner, taught us (more) local slang, and had the RAY youth (including yours truly) “screeched in” in proper fashion, those similarities and differences were on full display.Listening to a local band play traditional Newfoundland songs and dancing with everyone as the music got louder, I think I saw a glimpse of what happens when people allow themselves to see beyond their experiences. They have fun; they take in and enjoy new surroundings; they see the everyday and mundane; they question history and the present—but most of all, they are ignited to learnmore about life and what they will do with theirs beyond an unforgettable experience.
Visit the YEC website to learn more about the Youth Exchanges Canada program and to register for January-June 2017.