Madeline Rowan and Brenda Taylor knew in 1978 that their collaboration was the start of an important and vital initiative, but they couldn’t have predicted that the Native Youth Program (NYP) would become the longest-running Indigenous youth program in Canada. Every summer for the past four decades, NYP has welcomed small groups of urban Indigenous high-school students, plus in more recent years, Indigenous post-secondary students as their group leaders, to participate in a summer employment and training program; this summer brought through its 40th cohort.
It began when Madeline, then a curator at MOA, and Brenda, who was one of three First Nations workers employed by the Vancouver School Board at the time, met at the Britannia Community Centre to discuss Indigenous programs at the Museum and the potential of hiring high-school students to work here as part of a summer program. Brenda was a member of the Native Indian Youth Advisory Society (NIYAS), whose mission was to meet the needs of First Nations students, parents and other people living off-reserve in the Vancouver area.
The following year, in 1979, NIYAS and MOA worked together to apply for funding from the federal government and to implement the new program. They interviewed and hired their first cohort of high-school students that very summer. Of their impetus to start NYP, Madeline says, “I remember Brenda said in 1978, ‘It is time we showed what our native youth can do.’ And that is just what we, and they, did.”
After leading NYP for its first decade and a half, Madeline and Brenda passed the reins to Pam Brown, one of MOA’s Curators, Pacific Northwest. It has now been 25 years that Pam has directed the program. Brenda and Pam are both from the Heiltsuk Nation. “It is wonderful that Pam is still working very hard to ensure that NYP continues. It is a great program that has given many Indigenous youth invaluable experiences,” says Brenda.
For Pam, “The primary goal of NYP has been to create a space for urban youth at MOA that is meaningful and engaging.” Each summer, the NYP students participate in a wide range of activities and workshops as part of their training: cedar-bark stripping and weaving, drum making, spruce-root weaving, cooking, painting and animation, among others. The students learn from musicians, filmmakers and activists, along with Elders and visual artists.
“2010 to 2018 saw dramatic change and growth in the program, with more community engagement, and media arts and new media training. We updated NYP to make it more relevant to the issues urban youth face today,” explains Pam.
“Creative projects have become central to NYP,” she continues. “Short films, zine making and individual artworks are practical, creative and effective in involving students in the Museum. Skills such as public speaking, project planning and collaboration enhance employment opportunities. Making films, vlogs, blogs and podcasts gives urban Indigenous youth confidence in their identity.”
Also key to the students’ work and experience during the program is developing personalized museum tours, which they offer to visitors. With the support of Jill Baird, MOA’s Curator, Education, NYP students offer an Art + Activism tour in the Multiversity Galleries, highlighting art’s crucial purpose of effecting change in society.
Since 1979, over 400 Indigenous youth have passed through the Native Youth Program and have gone on to become artists, educators, academics, community leaders, lawyers, psychologists, politicians, police officers, and even an Ultimate Frisbee world champion. For Madeline, “They were a source of pride and of great satisfaction, and brought me some of the happiest memories of my career.”