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Leadership program ‘investing in youth’ from across the Northwest

The Ontario Educational Leadership Centre has brought its brand of youth leadership training to Northwestern Ontario for the first time, with over 140 students from the region participating.
Chris Wilson (middle), program director with the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre, along with Dryden high school students Ethan Curtis and Alyson Pap at the Youth Leadership Program held at Fort William Historical Park. (Submitted photo).

THUNDER BAY – The old adage that the youth are the future is taken very seriously by the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre.

After teaching leadership skills to students in Southern Ontario for more than 60 years, the organization has announced it will now bring those lessons to the Northwest.

“If we don’t teach them to be leaders, what will our society look like?” asked Chris Wilson, program director with the OELC. “Being able to help these leaders, and they are already leaders, we're just aiding in that process in helping them become better leaders and better people.”

More than 140 youth from across Northwestern Ontario have been participating in the OELC Youth Leadership Program at Fort William Historical Park this month.  

Partnering with the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, this is the first time the OELC has been able to bring programming to the region.

According to Wilson, the COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for the program, leading to a decision to bring programming to students here, rather than asking them to travel to Southern Ontario.

“With COVID protocol and being unable to bring students to us, we started to look for other options,” he said.  “We decided rural areas were a good place to go, because they often don’t get to come to us.”

Jarod Milko, leader of experiential learning for the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, said having the program offered in Thunder Bay made a huge difference in students' ability to participate.

“One of the greatest barriers for us in the north is transportation,” he said. “It’s very expensive to go to programs in Southern Ontario or even just outside of our communities. So we couldn’t bring the numbers to programs like OELC. Now with OELC on location, they can come to us, we can bring a lot more kids, and it reduces the barrier."

Throughout September, six OELC youth leadership programs were held in Ontario, with high school students participating in the four-day program in Thunder Bay this week and intermediate students coming next week.

Students from Kenora, Red Lake, Ear Falls, Vermilion Bay, Dryden, Sioux Lookout, Ignace, Pickle Lake, and Upsala participated in activities that teach important leadership skills, including trust, communication, and time management.

Wilson said it’s important to have student representation from as many communities as possible.

“Having the representation from all different areas allows all the areas to have someone coming back with a voice that can make a difference,” he said. “Part of what we do here is trying to help them understand what they can do in their own areas.”

For Alyson Pap and Ethan Curtis, two high school students from Dryden, the leadership program provided the skills they need to become more effective leaders in their community.

“It’s been incredible,” Pap said. “It’s amazing to see everybody. You know some people are more shy and not as outgoing or confident, but you see them grow into people that are super amazing. You see how everyone shows being a leader in their own way, and it was amazing to see everyone grow into that type of person.”

“This program has allowed me to break out of that shell and become more outgoing,” Curtis added. “This has really allowed me to grow in that aspect of my personality.”

Milko agrees, saying all the students who participate in the program leave with more confidence.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this program is it creates leaders, which is really important for solving small to large problems in our communities, but also they are paving the path to new ideas,” he said. “I don’t see a better investment in our communities than in leadership. Leadership is the number one thing we should be investing into our youth.”

Wilson said he hopes OELC will be able to make the Youth Leadership Program an annual event in the Northwest.

Both Pap and Curtis hope to see it return and encourage other youth to participate in the future.

“I would tell them to do it,” Pap said. “If they get invited to come to one of these, don’t even question it, just do it. The opportunity itself is so amazing.”

The things you will do here and the friends you will meet, the connections you will form and the memories you will make will stay there for the rest of your life,” Curtis added.