Spirit of Syilx Youth event for mental health takes virtual running to...

Spirit of Syilx Youth event for mental health takes virtual running to new level

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Elder Pauline Gregoire cheers on runners during a previous Spirit of Syilx Youth run. The run aims to bring awareness to suicide, mental health and violence experienced by Indigenous youth and families. (Photo: submitted by Okanagan Nation Alliance)

Sophie Gray

Local Journalism Initiative

The annual Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) run for suicide and violence awareness is going to look a little different this year.

The ONA had planned to host the run last weekend, but with many member nations under varying levels of COVID-19 restrictions, the Alliance decided to make the usually in-person run virtual.o

Tara Montgomery works for the ONA and has been deeply involved in planning the new virtual run. Although the run is going to be virtual, the ONA wanted to maintain deep connections to the land, cultural heritage and other members of the Okanagan Nation communities, Montgomery said, which range from Revelstoke to Princeton.

To do this, The ONA will use a variety of apps and technology to make the run as interactive as possible.

“The Unity Run is people finding strength in themselves and strength in their peers to achieve these things,” Montgomery  said. “So, we’re hoping that people will still find comfort in that even though they’re not running, say, with people being all together, but being able to utilize these different platforms as a way to connect those people together during this time.”

The Okanagan Nation Alliance has been putting on the Spirit of Syilx Youth Unity Run to bring awareness to suicide and violence since 2009. The run was asked for by a group of high-risk Syilx youth who wanted a way to connect with other youth from across the Syilx nations.

The run tours around the territory, hosted in a different place each year with the same purpose, to bring youth and Syilx nation members together to recognize and acknowledge those struggling with mental illness or those who’ve lost their lives to violence or suicide.

For this year’s run, the Okanagan Nation Alliance will use an online racing platform to track the distance each runner completes. An avatar will be moved along the originally planned route, which appears as a Google-earth style image with the route marked in blue.

The plan is for each runner to submit their run distance to the race coordinator, who will move the avatar along the route as runs are logged. This means runners will run near their own homes, preventing unnecessary travel. But run organizers are encouraging all runners to stay connected by using screen sharing options, instant chats, a Facebook group and even a virtual meeting room to share photos and videos as they run.

“We really wanted to create a sense of community. So we’re going to use this Racery so people can actually visually see how far we’re getting,” said Montgomery.

People who want to cheer runners on can log onto a Facebook page to post encouragement and comment on photos and videos.

Montgomery and the rest of the ONA organizational committee will have virtual meetings each morning with Leon Louis, who normally kicks off the run with a traditional smudging ceremony. Montgomery said this is very important, and they will be asking all runners to either tune in to the smudge or do so on their own before they start their runs.

“Whether they smudge or pray, we’re going to ask people to do that before they run because then you’re running with intention,” she said. “There’s lots of people who just physically run; you get out there and are like, I’m going to go for a jog for physical fitness. But this is to remind people your intention for running is around suicide violence awareness, so reminding yourself of that.”

Smudging is a form of praying for the Okanagan people, and is one of many cultural elements integrated into the yearly run. Usually, elders would come out and support the run, offering stories and histories about culturally significant sites along the run, helping to remind runners that the land they are running on is more than just a physical space. This year, the ONA hopes to capture those same sentiments by incorporating videos and audio clips at pins along the virtual route for those watching the progress to learn about different sites of significance or to incorporate traditional knowledge.

“We’ve heard from a few people who usually participate and elders who are saying oh we really miss being out there together and we’re hoping to be able to bring people together,” said Montgomery. “We’re going to have videos or whatever for elders who are usually on the run and who provide messages to the youth about how proud we are, or about potential significant markers along the route.”

The route will virtually take runners from Manning Park to Penticton via the Princeton Summerland Road. Normally, elders and children would complete a short portion of this run but most participants would be youth from Indigenous communities all over the Okanagan, including the Osoyoos Indian Band, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, and many others.

This year, Montgomery and the O.N.A. are hoping they’ll have more people join from all age groups because it’ll be easier to participate from home. They’ll be launching a registration platform on Facebook, and sending out t-shirts and information packages to those who register.

The T-shirts, Montgomery said, are a tradition that go along with the run as an incentive. But they also carry their own significance, capturing nsyilxcən words and inspirational quotes from those who came before.

“One of the words we usually have on the back of our shirts is for the people,” Montgomery said.

The phrase references Ethan Baptiste, a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band who was very involved in the run before he passed in 2010. “Something he always brought to mind is the work that we’re doing is for the people, the people who are here and the people to come.”

The ONA is still waiting to confirm the final dates of the virtual run, but anticipate that it will take place over a weekend at the end of May.

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