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Spreading the message of youth

Question & Answer with Allan Beaver

Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Apr 15/02) - When Allan Beaver was a teenager growing up in a small northern Alberta community of Wabasca-Desmarais, he tried to end his life three times.

He didn't know it then, but his future held much in store for him. He'd go on to university, run in marathons, get married, have children, and become a role model for First Nations youth.

The 37-year-old Bigstone Cree has been spreading the message of youth empowerment since 1984. Last month, he was in Fort McPherson to hold workshops with students at Chief Julius school. On his way home to Fort Chipewyan, Alta., he spoke to News/North about his work.

N/N: How did you get into youth empowerment?

AB:It was never planned. It happened by accident. I got asked to speak at a sports banquet in Edmonton in 1984. That was my first experience of public speaking. A person there told me, "You know Allan, you should do more speaking engagements." Now, I'm doing workshops across Canada and parts of the States. It's been quite a journey.

N/N: You were a distance runner before you got into public speaking. Tell me about that.

AB: My high school volleyball coach, he used to always see me running and he saw some potential in me to be a long distance runner. That's how it all got started. In 1988, I ran my first marathon, the Wang Marathon in Toronto. I ran the New York City marathon in 1991, and then the Los Angeles Marathon in 1992. I used to always say I'm going to run until I'm dead. That was my motto. I loved running so much I wanted to run until I was dead, and it almost happened in October of 1996, when I had my motor vehicle accident.

A St. Albert Transit (bus) rammed into my vehicle on the Yellowhead Trail in Edmonton and that's all I remember. I woke up in the hospital and the doctors said, "Allan, you're never going to walk again."

Boy, that was drastic, something I never thought would happen, and I had to change my lifestyle a lot because I couldn't run any more. I had to put everything on hold.

N/N: Now it looks like you're just fine on your feet. How long did it take to recover?

AB: Well I'm still recovering, but it took about six months to a year before I could walk again. I never wanted to sit in a wheelchair. What helped me was the elders' prayers, native traditional medicine, plus having faith in God. It's the power within myself wanting something so bad, and working towards it.

N/N: Have you found anything yet to replace the running?

AB:I think sharing my story, empowering youth, helping them achieve their goals. I love doing that because I'm giving something back to my community.

N/N: How has the accident changed the way you give your talks?

AB: I guess mainly stressing that they need an education. A lot of these kids I tell them, "You know, you can't be an athlete all your life." They need something to fall back on.

N/N:What kinds of challenges did you face growing up?

AB: As a First Nations youth growing up, some of the challenges I had to face were a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, a lot of suicide attempts, and peer pressure. I've overcome that and challenged myself to be the best that I can be.

My mom was my hero, she passed away in 1988. She always encouraged me to be the best I can be, to go out there challenging myself.

I wasn't really a heavy user of alcohol but when I came back to my home community, I abused it because everybody was doing it. In order for me to abstain from alcohol and drugs, I had to leave my community.

N/N: You had to leave your community to get away from alcohol?

AB: Yes. And to get an education, and keep up with my running. If I was in the community, there was nothing to do, no programs. In order to live a healthy lifestyle, I had to leave my community.

N/N: Do you think kids have to leave their community?

AB: I think so. A lot of First Nations communities don't have any post-secondary programs. And there's always an employment shortage in the community. If they want to compete with mainstream society, they have to leave their community and get an education.

N/N: What kind of reaction do you get to that message?

AB: A lot of them question me on that, but it's reality.

N/N: Do you think native youth growing up here have some advantages over those growing up in the South?

AB: I was quite surprised how well-behaved a lot of the kids are out here. They have a lot more respect for their elders than back home and in a lot of the communities I travel to that are closer to the major centres. The communities here are still very strong in their culture.

N/N: Do you have any success stories that really stayed with you?

AB: I went to this community once where this youth wanted to commit suicide that day. So I didn't start my workshops and that evening, the people introduced me to this kid. I just talked to him. He wanted to give up on living and he was a 15-year-old boy. I could relate to what he was saying.

He's 21 years old now, and he's totally changed his life. He's going into university and every time I see him he says, "Allan, thank you for listening to me, that helped me a lot to be where I am today." Whenever I'm in Edmonton, I phone him and keep in touch just to tell him, "I'm still here for you."

N/N: What do you tell youth in your workshops and speeches?

AB: What I'm doing is mainly trying to empower them and encourage them to achieve their goals in life. I share my background and the successes I've had, and I stress the importance of education, while still maintaining their culture and language -- living the best of both worlds. I tell them "You're beautiful, you are loved, you are special. God didn't put you on this earth for nothing."