Last Thursday morning a group of youths left Merritt’s Central Park running on their way to Princeton.

The run was completed on Sunday May 8, at Christina Lake and was conducted as a relay involving as many youths as possible.

The youths were involved in the Third Annual Unity Run hosted by the Okanagan Unity Alliance (ONA).

Viola Brown, a member of the Okanagan Nation Youth Leadership Council, believes today’s youth are looking for ways to give back to their communities.

“The run gives us a voice,” says Brown.

“It brings all the youth together from throughout the Okanagan Nation and builds pride and feels as though we are giving back to our nation.”

The Okanagan Nation Unity run promotes awareness of the high rate of suicide and violence within First Nation communities. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, ONA Chairman stresses the importance of promoting awareness about suicide and violence to young people.

“The goal of this run is to mobilize and motivate communities to begin addressing social problems at the root of these issues,” said Phillip.

“The Unity Run will engage and motivate youth to develop solutions, which will address these issues within their Okanagan Nation communities.”

“Every community has been touched by at least one of these issues and it’s crucial our youth don’t sweep them under the carpet.”

Since 2005, in response to a shooting on the Penticton Indian Reserve, the Okanagan Nation and the seven member bands have since been collaborating on nationwide initiatives. Their goal is to address the high Aboriginal Youth morbidity. To achieve this goal, communities are addressing the incidents of alcohol and drug abuse that lead to community violence, suicide and other social problems. Working through the ONA, the seven member bands have developed the R’Native Voice Youth program and the Okanagan Nation Response Team.

The Okanagan Nation Response Team is made up of frontline workers from the seven Okanagan Nation Bands. The team responds to crisis in community when they occur and delivers workshops designed to raise awareness about the signs of depression and suicide. Most importantly, participants learn what they can do, how to prevent suicide.

In 2009, R’Native Voice and the Okanagan Nation Response Team held a series of meetings with Youth to ask them how these programs could better support them. The outcomes of these meetings were the Spirit of Syilx Run, which promotes Okanagan Nation Unity and brings awareness to the issues of Suicide and Violence within the Nation. The first run was held in August 2009, starting in Westbank with more than 121 participants that ran throughout the South Okanagan ending in Oliver B.C. It was such a success that a second run was held in April 2010. This run gained National recognition with over 200 runners; some as young as three and others as old as 70 ran from Westbank to Douglas Lake. The run organizers have committed to holding the event for four years, which means that next year will be the last for the run in its present incarnation.

Kim Waardenburg is the Okanagan Nation Critical Response Team Leader and works closely with ONA youth particularly those that are at risk of hurting themselves or others.

“This run has been a great way for our youth to make new friends and it really promotes the inter-connectedness of the Okanagan Nation,” says Waardenburg.

“Theirs is a real push to re-connect the youth to traditional values and culture, and this run helps to promote our traditional values of working together and sharing communally.”

The ONA is the tribal council of the Okanagan Nation in the Okanagan. The ONA currently represents eight member communities including: Okanagan Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Lower and Upper Similkameen Indian Bands and the Colville Confederated Tribes.