Dene youth connect with culture at Dechinta

Dene youth connect with culture at Dechinta
Students of Dechinta’s winter/spring semester show off their hand-made beaver mittens, trapped and sewn with the help of elders throughout the land-based course.Photo: Erin Freeland Ballantyne.

At 19, Pascal Erasmus of Yellowknife has just begun his pursuit of post-secondary education, but has already seen major transformations in how he views learning, his culture and himself.

The young Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) member recently completed the six-week winter/spring semester at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning along with 10 other graduates – a valuable experience that has changed his view of the classroom.

“It’s shifted my perception on education and what I prioritize in my own personal life, because before I wasn’t fully in tune with my culture, with my identity. I was very conformed to a certain narrative in society – assimilated, almost, you could say,” he shared with The Journal. “Since going there, the whole experience, I feel like I have a better appreciation for my identity that I hold here.”

The semester featured courses in indigenous self-determination, social determinants of Aboriginal health, community governance and sustainability, along with time spent on the land with elders harvesting moose, beaver and fish.

Erasmus said the way in which both classroom and land-based components were equally prioritized in the program was, for him, profound.

“They were on par with each other; they were equal to each other. One wasn’t more valuable than the other in this case. So I really appreciated that, and I think it made me appreciate my own culture, where I come from, as an Aboriginal person,” he said.

As well, having a space to share ideas with like-minded people provided him with a “sense of hope,” he said.

Currently completing his final project for the course, Erasmus is busy putting together a feasibility study for the community of N’dilo on ways that YKDFN can help to reduce its carbon footprint and contributions to climate change.

Erasmus was recently accepted to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC where he plans to study sociology starting this fall. Dechinta, he said, was a great way to prepare without having to leave his home territory.

“The experience helped to refine the way that I view education now, any form of education that may be, whether it’s cultural or institutional, whatever. I just view it in a more mature way,” he said. “I highly recommend it to anybody that wants to pursue post-secondary education. It’s a great first step and it’s very fun.”

Dechinta churning out young leaders

In its fourth year of delivering land-based, university-accredited programming out at Blachford Lake Lodge north of Yellowknife, Dechinta has evolved into having a stronger faculty, attracting and producing engaged young people interested in cultural revitalization, decolonization and healthy leadership.

“I think what we’re seeing is Dechinta becoming a destination for young people who are interested in leadership in the most broad sense,” said Dechinta’s program director, Erin Freeland-Ballantyne. “Over the last number of years, people are coming having already been involved in their communities and wanting to make them even better, and really wanting to mobilize that knowledge.”

Over the years, she said she’s seen the formation of a strong network of alumni doing incredible work.

“As we track our grads over the long term, we can see that the program is really transformative and helps people set off in a good direction, whether they’re going to go back and work for their negotiating team or continuing on in post-secondary,” Freeland-Ballantyne said. “No matter where people go, it’s kind of a definitive experience and having that positive education experience that’s really supportive can really be life-changing for people.”

This spring’s cohort of students came from communities across the NWT, from Tulita to Colville Lake, Lutsel K’e, Fort Simpson, Fort Resolution and Yellowknife, as well as Ross River, Yukon.

“It was a really cool mix of students,” Freeland-Ballantyne said. “The students really taught each other a lot from the regions of the North in terms of what’s going on.”

At the semester’s peak, there were also a total of seven children out at Blachford Lake Lodge with their parents attending “Kids U”, Dechinta’s on-the-land program for kids.

Fall semester is planned to start Sept. 7 and go through all of September and October. The deadline to apply is July 1.

The semester may see students participate in a community caribou hunt along with courses on indigenous law, Dene Chanie, indigenous self-determination and more on-the-land learning with elders.

Two short courses are also planned for this August: one for NWT educators and a one-week indigenous self-determination course with Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard.

For more information or to apply, visit

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