Exchange students Novaleigh and Shanene Rain surprised their host family while cheering their new friends from Notre Dame High School at a spring soccer game.
Asked what sports they play most back home in Paul Band, Alberta, the two cousins answered at once:
“Golf,” they said.
A First Nation with just over 1,000 residents, Paul Band runs an 18-hole golf course along Lake Wabumun, about an hour’s drive west of Edmonton. Local students tee off for free, said Shanene, and compete in teams.
For their part, a week in the Beach showed Novaleigh, Shanene, and nine of their classmates some surprising things about Toronto.
They were impressed by the downtown skyscrapers, the CN Tower, the pandas at the zoo. And a walk behind roaring Niagara Falls wowed everybody, Notre Dame included.
But ravines with coyotes, foxes and deer? That wasn’t what Paul Band students expected from big-city Toronto. It was a bit like home, minus the wolf howls and occasional cougar sightings.
Speaking with five of the 15 Notre Dame students who visited Paul Band in June, all agreed that the main thing they learned was how much they all had in common. After taking Native Studies at school, that came as some surprise.
“I think they’re so wound up being politically correct that they’re not telling us all the normal things that people do,” said Calyssa Burke.
“They don’t teach you that they play hockey, that they play soccer, that they listen to the same music you do,” added Sydni Taffe, whose family hosted Novaleigh and Shanene.
“They experience more things than us sometimes. You won’t learn that from a textbook.”
But just because their Paul Band friends also listen to Skrillex or play Just Dance on Nintendo Wii, that didn’t stop Notre Dame girls from being impressed by their very different home near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“I remember when we all got off the bus for the first time,” said Burke, laughing. “We were all like, ‘I’ve never seen so much grass!’”
Besides staying with host families in Paul Band, the whole group spent two nights in cabins outside a Jasper cultural centre. By day they hiked in the mountains, saw their bus stopped by passing mountain goats, and walked on a glacier.
Notre Dame happened to visit just as Jasper was putting on events for Alberta’s Aboriginal Week, so they also heard stories from Blackfoot elders and songs by the Bearhead Sisters trio.
Paul Band had similarly good timing in April, joining a multicultural festival held every two years at Notre Dame. A prayer spoken by one young girl before Paul Band performed a traditional dance was the first time the Notre Dame students had heard anyone speak in Stoney, also called Nakoda.
“She was really nervous, but our school was really welcoming,” said Burke. “People were shouting, ‘You can do it!’”
Organized and funded in large part by SEVEC, a Heritage Canada youth exchange, the students’ spring and summer trips also relied on homestay parents, volunteer teachers, and school fundraisers.
Sydni Taffe said she hopes teachers and principals at other Toronto schools look at doing their own SEVEC exchanges, adding that it would be well worth it for the Notre Dame group to go and speak to other schools about their trip.
Her schoolmate Tawny Lovecchio agrees.
“It’s about talking with people, not to them,” she said. “That’s what I like about it.”
Judging by all the texts and online Wii games now going on between Paul Band and Notre Dame two time zones away, such conversations show no sign of quieting down.
“I get daily posts from like, six girls,” said Taffe. “It’s great.”