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Q&A with Jay MacDonald
Shaping tomorrow's leaders

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 28, 2008

YELLOWKNIFE - Since 1990, promising high school students from around the NWT have been attracted to a unique opportunity in Fort Smith.

The Western Arctic Leadership Program (WALP) has offered the students, most from smaller communities, a chance to hone their leadership skills and attend Paul William Kaeser high school.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Sitting on the edge of a table in the study hall at the Western Arctic Leadership Program, house parent and program co-ordinator Jay Macdonald is surrounded by, left to right: Rachenda Weyallon of Behchoko, Ronald Bull of Lutsel K'e, Roslyn Nadli of Fort Providence, Vanessa Neyelle of Deline, volunteer tutor Janine Rommel of Germany and Cassandra Norris of Fort Simpson. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

For the past seven years, WALP has been run by Jay Macdonald and his wife, Karen, who are the house parents and program co-ordinators.

The non-profit program - operating in the 22-bedroom Madonna House, once a residence for priests and nuns - was created by alumni of Grandin College, a former residential school in Fort Smith.

On April 22, News/North sat down with Jay Macdonald to talk about WALP and what it has meant to the many students who have passed through the program over the years.

News/North: What is the purpose of WALP?

Jay Macdonald: I would say our purpose is to help prepare these young people to down the road go back and assume roles of leadership in their communities.... We're not talking just political leadership, but leadership in whatever field they feel comfortable being a leader in, whether that's in recreation or as a parent who's involved in a school or as a political leader or in the environment.

N/N: How does WALP work?

J.M: Our mandate, for lack of a better word, is we recruit students from across the NWT and from every community, hopefully. We try and have a real cross-section of students from all over the NWT. We do a recruiting process each spring. Our posters are just going out. We'll send them to the band offices and schools, and try to get kids who have an interest in leadership and in bettering themselves. For a lot of the smaller communities, this is a great educational opportunity because we have a bigger school here with more options.... From the leadership side, we try to teach life skills to the kids to prepare them for life after high school and after WALP. We have live-in tutors. Each student does two hours of study hall five days a week with our tutors. Right now we have three tutors, but normally we have two. They're volunteers from the Frontiers Foundation. They come here and live with us for 10 months a year.

N/N: What sorts of programs do you offer?

J.M: A lot of our leadership we teach on the land. We have a cultural component to our program. We do three or four or five camps a year. We do an initiation camp in the fall with our new students. We do five or six days where we bring in just our new students to get to know everyone and give them an orientation. We do survival skills and traditional fishing, and we hire a local guy to keep it in a very traditional setting.... We also do a winter camp, which is usually late February or early March. It's also along the same idea of learning the culture, the tradition of the land, how to respect the land and those sorts of things. We do a canoe trip in the spring.... We use those activities to build the leadership amongst the kids and try to build that level of trust between each other, as well as taking on the different roles and responsibilities. I think what makes this program unique is the on-the-land component.

N/N: What are the ages of students?

J.M: Our oldest student right now is 19 and our youngest student is 15. Fourteen to 19 I'd say is the normal range.

N/N: Can any student in the NWT apply to come here, like somebody in Yellowknife?

J.M: We have taken the odd student from Yellowknife. Traditionally, we try to get the students from the smaller communities, because we're trying to give the students in the NWT an opportunity to come to something that they can't get in their home communities.... We really look for the leadership quality in the students' applications. We look at academic standing to a certain point, but more we're looking for involvement within their communities. Are they involved in volunteering? Are they involved in their schools? Do they show that potential in going on that leadership path?

N/N: Do some people think WALP is just a place for students to stay while they attend high school?

J.M: We do get a lot of "you run the group home" comments, but it is a lot more than that. Right now, we've just set up a website. We're hoping to have that up and going (this) week - walp.ca. That's new. We've talked about it a long time, but we've finally got it in place. People will be able to go online and see pictures of our activities and read our mission statement. They'll be able to download the application and get the information right online.

N/N: Do you think a lot of people don't know what WALP does?

J.M: I think a lot of people don't really know exactly what we do, even some in Fort Smith. You know, we volunteer. The kids here have to do a minimum of 25 hours community service every year.... We've had some kids that have done 130/140 hours in a year of volunteering service within the community. A big part of the leadership side is being able to get out there and being involved in the community, not to benefit yourself but to benefit your community. I think it shows a great amount of leadership.

N/N: How many students are here in a year?

J.M: Right now, we have 11. We had 17 when we started the year.... Over the years we've had different incidents where sometimes a student may be removed from the program for behavioural issues. We've had students withdraw because they might come here for three weeks and a 13 or 14-year-old kid is extremely homesick.... You've got family problems at home or a death in the family or losing a friend and those kinds of things. So there's a lot of factors that impact on our numbers from time to time.

N/N: What would be normal numbers?

J.M: We usually start with 17 or 18. Usually, we end up with somewhere around 13 at the end of the year.... For kids in this program who stay here for more than one semester, over 85 per cent of them graduate from high school.

N/N: How long are the students here?

J.M: When they enroll in the program they would be here from enrollment to graduation.... We've taken kids in Grade 10, 11 and 12.

N/N: You mentioned some of the on-the-land programs, are there other programs here?

J.M: Over the years, we've done a lot of different things, like public speaking and First Aid. We'll bring people in to talk to the kids and do presentations. We try and open up the world to them a little bit, I guess.

We've had kids from small communities that have never been south and have never been to a big city. So over the years we've gone to the Aboriginal Achievement Awards a couple of times. We went to Winnipeg one year. We went to Calgary one year. It was a great opportunity for the kids. There were a lot of celebrities there. There were a lot of very high-achieving aboriginal people. A majority of our kids are aboriginal. I would say over 95 per cent of the kids are aboriginal.

N/N: Did you go down south this year?

J.M: This year we didn't. We run on a fairly tight budget from a financial standpoint. ECE funds us and then we do fundraising from other avenues. There's a board of directors, not all from Fort Smith but across the territories. We're a non-profit, charitable organization.

N/N: How much does it cost to run the program?

J.M: Our budget last year was just over $300,000. That covers all of our expenses - salaries, running the building. We pay for travel for the kids home and back twice a year. We fly them here in the fall. We fly them home for Christmas, back after Christmas and home in the spring.... We do a lot with that money. So I think it's a great investment in the futures of these young people.

N/N: What's it like to have all these students from different communities living under one roof?

J.M: It's actually very interesting because you get a lot of different perspectives. You get a lot of different beliefs. We've had a wide variety of tutors from all over the world over the years. Right now, we have two tutors from Germany and we have a young lady here from Toronto. We've had tutors from Lithuania, Barbados, Sri Lanka, Newfoundland. They all bring their own cultures. It makes for a real interesting experience for the kids, because they're getting different cultures from across the North, as well as different cultures from around the world.

N/N: Personally, do you have a sense of responsibility in helping to mold all these young people as leaders?

J.M: It can be a little overwhelming at times when you think about the responsibility that's on your shoulders from helping them to make the right choices to giving them the right advice to encouraging them in the right direction. We take a tough love approach to the kids. We push and we push. We want them to succeed. We want them to do their best. But we do it in a very loving way. We try very hard to make sure that we get the best out of each individual student that they can give. I think that's all that you can ask of anyone.