Right now, the kids of Bella Bella seem to be doing pretty great.
Bella Bella is a small town on an island off the coast of British Columbia, surrounded by the Great Bear Rainforest. You could walk from one objective of the town to the other in about 15 minutes. The only way in is by barge or plane.
The town is part of the native Heiltsuk Nation, and the kids there get plenty of opportunities to connect to their heritage and lands because of this. During the autumn, for example, the town hosts a salmon festival, and kids learn to fillet, smoke, and barbecue the large, snaggle-toothed fish. At other times, they might used to go into the rainforest or learn traditional stories.
Yep: all in all, Bella Bella looks pretty awesome.
But it hasn’t always been this way .
In the early 1970 s, Bella Bella was in a bad way. The local fishery, the town’s main source of income, was failing. There were deep social problems and alcoholism.
Worse yet, the town’s very identity as Heiltsuk was under attack. For decades, the Canadian government had been banning key culture ceremonies and removing children from their homes or placing them in often-abusive residential schools in an attempt to Europeanize them.
The adolescents in the town weren’t immune to this one-two punch. With a fractured culture, a general feeling of distrust of got anything to do with the government, and few job prospects, merely about one student in 50 was completing school . Maclean’s reports that the town had one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country.
Why? Because when you set out to destroy a people’s identity, it makes it hard for that community to prosper.
The town realized that in order to help their kids, they had to bring back that sense of identity and history.
One of seeds of this change was a government worker named Larry Jorgenson. Jorgenson had previously helped regroup Alberta’s mental health department, and Bella Bella hoped he could help them too.
Upon arriving, Jorgenson immediately set out helping to restore the kids’ fractured connection to their territory, taking them out on long barge journeys or helping them construct cabins. He even persuaded local law enforcement to let youth wrongdoers serve their sentences in the cabins a traditional practice rather than sending them to detention centers.
They did this for years. And in the 1990 s, they devoted these efforts an extra edge. The town and Jorgenson( who had since endeavoured to Bella Bella and married into the Heiltsuk community) started the nonprofit Qqs Project Society. Pronounced “kucks, ” Qqs( which means “eyes”) runs a science and cultural camp that helps children connect to their heritage.
The program helps teach children cultural traditions, gets them out of their comfort zones and into the wild, and brings in scientists, instructors, and local experts to teach the children about the islands and coasts that make up their home.
Today, Bella Bella is a most varied place.
Graduation rates top 85%. If you visited, you’d see that the kids seem to be doing well. There are still some social problems, but it’s a remarkable recovery from the dark days of the early ‘7 0s.
Jess Housty, communications director at Qqs and Jorgenson’s daughter, says one of the coolest things is that a lot of the kids who were originally helped by Jorgenson and Qqs are now coming back as adults to run as camp counselors, community leaders, researchers, and resource managers.
The town itself seems to be doing better, too. The Heiltsuk have taken over local resource management, and ecotourism is bringing in new revenue. People are coming from all over the world to find the Great Bear Rainforest, its grizzlies, and the rare white Kermode bears.
Identity is a huge part of community, but we often don’t think about it.
There are many other communities around the world like Bella Bella that are also dealing with this problem of reclaiming their identities.
But Bella Bella shows that when people are able to reconnect to both their heritage and the world around them, amazing recovery is possible .
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