YMCA Exchange: Lakeside Academy
and Seven Oaks Met School in Winnipeg

by Patricia Staniforth

On October 1st, 2022, after almost a year of waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted, 29 grade 11 Lakeside Academy students and four teachers boarded a flight to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the YMCA Exchange trip. They would be the first group of Lester B. Pearson students to travel since March 2020. The excitement in the air was palpable!

This much anticipated adventure would prove to be an eye-opening experience, and a week of firsts for our students: First time away from home and for some, a first time on a plane, and for the vast majority, a first time in Winnipeg. Staying in a hotel, in the heart of downtown, blocks away from the stunning Canadian Museum of Human Rights, students had a first-hand feel for life in this small metropolitan city.

On Monday morning, students were bussed to the Seven Oaks Met school where they would meet their “twins” for the first time and begin making lasting connections while developing their understanding of a new Canadian culture. That afternoon, they participated in their engagement activity with The Bear Clan, a patrol group located in the North End whose mandate is “community people working with the community to provide personal security in the inner city in a non-threatening, non-violent and supportive way.” Students handed out food and water to those in need and kept an eye out for “sharps” (used needles) which would be collected and disposed of by a member of the Bear Clan to ensure the safety of our students and the community.

For Emilia S, “It was a very emotionally gratifying experience, because giving back is something I enjoy doing. I met some very nice people who were very appreciative of receiving food and water.” Rhiannon L. described the trip as “A healing experience to unmask the assumption that people who are poor and live on the streets are bad people.”

Our hosts organized a jam-packed week of activities and cultural experiences, from the zoo to the Human Rights Museum and a hike in the Boreal Forest with breathtaking views, to a ghost tour of the Exchange District. There was truly something for everyone.

A highlight of the trip was a guided tour of the sacred Petroforms with an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper. Ron, a captivating storyteller, taught us about the beliefs of his people through the lens of various rock formations, all the while relating to us on a personal level and connecting to life experiences common across all cultures.

Kaylie S describes, “It was different because nobody had ever taught us Indigenous beliefs this way. Walking through the sacred site was a first-hand experience and he told me how to be connected.”

In the evenings, we explored a plethora of activities around Winnipeg. Arcades, bowling, laser tag, escape rooms, and more! The opportunities to bond were endless. King of the “arcade” court, Amari C. says, “Sleep in the arcade is the best way to rack up the points! It was great to watch the students run around trying to “rack up” points to buy toys and trinkets, a clear sign that we are slowly moving back to a level of “normal” where kids can be kids again.

This very exciting, fun-packed week fueled our students to prepare to host our guests only a mere month later.

The Montreal leg started off with a morning at the St. Anne’s Veterans Hospital, where students visited the residents, sang to them, danced for them, and even took them for walks around the facilities to help brighten their day. “Giving back to our own community was an enriching experience. It was even more powerful because we visited a few days after Remembrance Day,” said Elissia F. “They were very appreciative and happy to share their stories with us.”

Our jam-packed week took our Winnipeg guests to the TOHU circus school, the Old Port of Montreal for shopping, the Pointe-à-Callière museum, the Biodome, and even a day trip to Quebec City. We got to share our community with our new friends. The Winnipeg students really enjoyed their time shopping and exploring the stunning cityscapes of Old Montreal and Vieux Quebec.

In the evenings, student-led activities such as movie night, glow in the dark volleyball, and video games provided more opportunities for the students to get to know each other. Jadon, a major player in organizing the Glow Volleyball and our referee says, “Watching Lance and Logan dominate the court hyped everyone up for the event!”

As the week came to a close, the Winnipeg students presented thank you gifts to our students and said their goodbyes. Suffice it to say, the laughter, tears, and sniffles following our closing ceremony were a clear sign that the trip had been a huge success and had a lasting impression on the students.