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Features / Exchange strengthens Canadian cultural ties

A demonstration of an Osoyoos Indian traditional dance at the town hall on Monday. Photo: Austin Taylor

THERE was a vibrant show of culture at Lerwick Town Hall this week as the isles’ latest Canadian youth exchange programme came to an end.

The Spirit Dancer project resumed in Shetland in mid-April after a break of a couple of years and a colourful civic reception was held in Lerwick on Monday to celebrate its work.

This year’s scheme brought a total of 14 youths to Shetland from the Osoyoos Indian Band and Penticton Indian Band communities in British Columbia, Canada.

They learnt about the isles’ culture, visiting areas such as Yell and Whalsay, as well as taking trips to Mousa and Sumburgh.

The civic reception saw a few council members and those involved mingle with the visiting groups and Shetland youths who will be visiting Canada in return later this year.

The night opened with a series of short speeches from host Cecil Smith and Canada based guide and explorer Chris Cooper, whose Spirit Dancer canoe – now permanently located in Shetland – inspired the exchange project to begin in 2011.

The visiting youths paid tribute to their host families, whilst a speech from local girls Amber Eunson and Sophie Williamson noted the Canadians’ friendliness.

“We tend to be quite reserved here, so we were quite nervous about you coming,” they said, before speaking of the bond developed between the communities.

All of the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian visitors pictured with young Shetlanders who will be visiting Canada later this year. Photo: Austin Taylor

One visiting girl said their trip to Shetland – which was supported by the council’s Youth Services department – has “changed everyone” and that it gave them a “sense of responsibility” in representing their native community.

“We will probably come here again in the future,” she added with a smile.

Three girls from the Osoyoos Indian Band then took to the Town Hall floor to perform a series of traditional dances, with their endless energy impressing those watching.

A group dance was also encouraged, with swathes of folk linking arms in a large circle in a warming show of friendship.

Every person in attendance at the civic reception was then given gifts by the two visiting communities before there was a true of exchange of cultures.

The Lerwick Jarl Squad made a guest cameo before a traditional Shetland dance saw the night out, with locals, visitors and Vikings all taking part.

Osoyoos Indian Band youth co-ordinator Matthew Baran said that one of the main things to come out of the exchange – which relies on a high level of fundraising – is the connection between the Canadian and Shetland youths.

He said: “The outcome this year has been very positive. We’re only half way through – the other half is the accepting of the youth from Shetland. From what I’m seeing, this is an amazing experience. We have two youths from different parts of the planet interacting tonight like they’ve know each other for years.

“It’s amazing how radically different Shetland and Okanagan are. When we left home it was 30 degrees, and it was like four here. But every time we saw something that was specific to this region, they found something very relatable to their community.

“When you start realising how drastically different we as human beings are, the similarities of community resonate. We have band halls, you have community halls. You guys cut peat, we cut fire wood.”

Kyle Baptiste, 16, from Osoyoos Indian Band, added that he hopes to bring back to Canada some of Shetland’s culture having learnt about the isles’ way of life and dancing.

From left to right - Amber Eunson, Jenna Bower, Kali Baptiste and Sophie Williamson. Photo: Austin Taylor

“I think we’ve gotten lifetime experiences out of this. I don’t know if I’ll ever do this again, so a lot of us are trying to make the most of this trip.

“Whatever we learn up here about different cultures and about the land – we should bring that back to where we live so that we can teach people about what other peoples’ cultures are.

“The Shetland people have been really welcoming. I think it’s really awesome how they invite us to their home and treat us like if we were their own. The hospitality is amazing. Everyday we have big plates of food and they just tell us to have more.”

Spirit Dancer Shetland chairwoman Emily Tulloch meanwhile said that the visiting youths – who spent around a week in the isles – at one point sailed the 42-foot Spirit Dancer canoe across to Mousa.

The boat, however, now forms a small part of a larger project which is designed to give youths from two sides of the globe increased self-confidence and cultural awareness.

She said: “We hope to build on friendships and let our young folk experience a different culture and make them feel confident enough about explaining wir culture to other folk. They have a presentation on Shetland that they’ll give when they’re out in Canada.

“Even the friendships between the Shetland young folk – they won’t necessarily see each other that often as they’re spread around the isles. It’s about young folk and helping them to achieve what they can.

“I think what’s been really good is folk in Shetland realising that they can have people from all over the world come into their house and host them. They do a really good job at promoting Shetland.”