How does one simultaneously develop skills for their future career while also making a positive difference in the world?
Sara Drew is a second-year Bachelor of Education student at VIU who returned to her studies this semester following a four-month excursion to Peru. The International Aboriginal Youth Internship (IAYI) Initiative, partnered with Canada World Youth (CWY), flew out their fifth cohort of Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis interns to Peru on August 9, 2019—the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Drew left Ottawa with 33 other interns. Her initial destination was Juli (pronounced hoolie) in the Puno Region of Southern Peru, however, she would later arrive in the Mato District in Northern Peru where she would remain until her return to Canada in December.
“In high school, because I’m Indigenous, I was approached by the Indigenous office there, saying that [CWY] runs this program. At that time, it just wasn’t the right fit for me. After I got the first year of university down, I was contacted,” Drew said. “I thought about it after awhile, and I was ready.”
According to CWY’s website, the Pathways to Indigenous Youth Leadership Program, run by IAYI and CWY, is focused on Indigenous knowledge and culture, delivered in partnership with numerous Indigenous communities.
The program consists of intensive experiential learning opportunities aimed at providing participants with the knowledge, skills, and strategies necessary to prepare them to pursue academic goals and employment.
The four pillars of the program include: internships, the United Nations seminar, overseas exchanges, and youth forums.
Drew was engaged in an overseas exchange. Although IAYI offers a number of initiative based opportunities for its volunteers, CWY’s focus in Peru is directed towards agricultural development, human rights, basic life skills for youth and adults, and environmental education and training.
Additionally, the exchange program covers costs for travel, food, accommodation related to the internship, out of country emergency medical insurance for the duration of the volunteer contracts, pre-departure orientation, vaccinations, local project-related transportation, monthly pocket money allowance, and Spanish language classes.
“We didn’t really get a choice in where we were going. Peru was pretty set. There was a quiz we had to take,” Drew said. “From there, they fed us to different communities that would do certain work based on our interests.”
Another intern, Athena Sharp, spent her four months in Mato and Juli along with Drew, and said that applying for the program was a long process.
Those interested in the internship have to apply online and receive a confirmation email before they are eventually “conditionally accepted.” Moreover, Sharp noted that the application is not very specific in terms of intern responsibilities once they are abroad.
“There are two interviews, but I only did one,” Sharp said. “[Drew] had a similar experience. It was kind of confusing. I didn’t hear back for about a month; it was a lot of waiting.”
Sharp is Inuk, and said that she was the only intern in the cohort to come from the North of Canada. She mentioned that signing up to go across the world is intimidating enough, but it can be difficult to leave her own community and have the motivation to do so.
“It’s a lot to go out on a limb for,” Sharp said.
Drew described pre-departure as nine days of workshops, meeting team members—such as Bree Ingram, from the Skawh First Nation—team building exercises, and cultural ceremonies provided by guest elders at Carleton University.
Drew and Ingram shared a dorm in Ottawa, but they were located in different communities when they got to Peru. Ingram ended up in Lampa, ‘The Pink City.’
“In Lampa we spent most days teaching English in schools, building gardens, and painting murals around the community. We also were able to travel to three rural communities to take part in traditional rituals which included witnessing a sacrifice of a llama,” Ingram said.
Sharp and Drew bonded over their mutual values of gender equality and environmentalism.
In Juli, Drew’s group initiative was women empowerment. Amongst a number of sustainable development goals, gender equality was one that stood out for Drew. Bringing equality to other countries was important for her because the patriarchy, in some places, promotes “ownership” over women.
“That’s something I don’t think should be as prevalent in our world moving forward,” Drew said.
The interns hosted several gender equality workshops where women could open up about their feelings towards their roles in society.
“We did a women safety audit. Men were not allowed there, except for one who showed up anyway and talked for his wife and looked over everything she was doing,” Drew said.
The interns had an anonymous box for women to write about their fears and how they felt insecure in their community. Then, they took the participants on a walk through the community, noted the places where they didn’t feel safe, and searched for solutions to help the women to feel more safe.
The plan was to be able to do this type of work in Juli, but due to reasons out of the interns’ control, they were limited to composting and teaching English. The community had never had volunteers before, and they were very traditional.
“We were an all-female group going there,” Drew said. “The city just wasn’t ready—for one, volunteers, and two, it being all female. So, they weren’t in support of us working.”
Drew and her fellow interns had a few run-ins with the possibility of sex trafficking and “a bit of a stalker issue,” but once CWY found out about these problems, the interns were evacuated from the community within 24 hours and relocated.
Sharp went into more depth, saying that there was pushback from the Municipality, and allegedly one of the host-mothers spread the rumour that the internship was really a front for sex trafficking and that the project supervisor was orchestrating the whole ordeal.
This might’ve led to the stalker incident. According to Sharp, a man approached her, Drew, and another intern, and after asking them for a picture, he stayed to chat with the three in fluent English, but wouldn’t make eye contact with them.
Later, he found the interns at a festival and sat next to Sharp. Feeling uncomfortable, she told the project supervisor, so the interns left. The man then found the interns’ place of work, and insisted that some of them come to a party. After the supervisor was informed, the man was confronted but then he acted like he didn’t speak English.
Following this incident, the interns were relocated to Mato where their primary focus would be on developing kitchens. The aim was to build a healthy kitchen for the families, the typical set up being just a kettle on rocks on a wall. Under these conditions smoke would fill the house, which was not safe for the family or children.
The interns made stoves out of adobe bricks. They would start by shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows, then they mixed the dirt together with hay and water until they got the right consistency. They mixed everything together by stomping on the contents with their gum boots.
The next step was to fill a wooden tile mold with the final product. They would let it dry for a day or two to form the bricks, then they would repeat this process. The bricks were used to build stoves with functioning chimneys for the smoke, along with stove top elements, and a place to prepare food on.
“It’s just a total difference—the before and after. Those families were so grateful for that, which was so amazing to see,” Drew said.
Interns lived with host families. They ate breakfast around 7 am, and worked from 8 am–12 pm. They returned home for lunch and a nap before going back to work from 3 pm–5 pm. After the work was done, they would play volleyball with the community members—nearly everyday—and return home by 8 pm for dinner, then bed.
Interns worked Monday to Friday, so they had the weekends off. One of the biggest struggles for Drew was the lack of freedom. Drew and Sharp made plans in Ottawa for their time in Peru, but these were denied as they were restricted to their communities and had a strict 8 pm curfew. With their busy day-to-day schedule, they often didn’t have the time or energy to do anything else.
“Our community was very small—200 people. But we made use of it. We found so many trails, we hiked the canyons, we played volleyball, a lot of card games, and just sort of hung out together on our weekends,” Drew said.
Diet was also something that Drew had to adapt to.
“It’s a lot of rice, and a lot of chicken, and rice for breakfast as well—not something I am used to,” Drew said.
In Canada, Drew eats primarily vegetarian, unless the meat is local and ethical. In Peru, that wasn’t a problem because the food that they ate was less than 10 feet away.
“The community I was in didn’t have any fresh fruit,” Drew said. “We had to go to the [community] over, so that wasn’t on a daily basis, but when we had it, it was really nice. We did have an avocado tree, though. So, I had avocado on my bread every single morning—amazing.”
Breakfast was typically bread with something on it—either an egg or avocado—or they ate leftovers from dinner the prior day. Lunch and dinner always used the same meat for the same day. With every meal, there was usually salad or soup, rice, potatoes, and some type of meat. Moreover, a traditional dish in Peru is guinea pig.
“On my birthday, I had a very special meal of guinea pig. It was staring right at me,” Drew said. “It was good; it wasn’t bad, actually. It kind of just tasted like chicken, but different for sure.”
They also had a farm in the community that had guinea pigs, rabbits, and a pig.
“I could hear the guinea pigs right out the kitchen, and they’re so loud. As I’m eating one of their brothers or sisters, I felt a little bad.”
Another obstacle for Drew was clothing. She had originally packed for Southern Peru, where it’s cold. When her team was relocated, she arrived in Northern Peru with merino wool, and jackets.
“I was desperately searching for some shorts, and it’s tough,” Drew said. “We had to go to the town over, and it’s a street market. [There] were clothes. I found some that fit, some that worked, but it’s tough—it’s nothing that I would’ve chosen back home. But, that just comes with living there; you’re not going to get your first pick, and that’s totally fine.”
Other cultural differences were prominent in day-to-day life. All showers were cold ones. Their homes weren’t the typical colonial house. The rooms were all separate, not connected by hallways, and they were made of tin roofs and adobe bricks.
The language barrier was also tough for Drew, who knew little Spanish upon her arrival to Peru. On the other hand, meeting her second host family was significant for Drew.
“They took us in as their own daughters the second we walked in that door,” Drew said. “And just working with the kids. I think that was one of my favourite moments. They’re so full of light and love, and energy, and they loved us there. Especially the younger ones—our Spanish level was about the same as theirs, so we could have full conversations with them.”
Aside from the program’s initiative, Drew took on another responsibility regarding oral health.
“When [my dentist] heard that I was leaving on this trip and would be working with kids, they immediately gave me boxes and boxes of toothbrushes and toothpaste to bring over there. So, I hosted a few dental hygiene classes for kindergarten-age kids,” Drew said. “I taught them how to brush their teeth properly, and gave them all out. The kids were really happy about that, and their families were happy about it.”
In December, the interns returned to Ottawa for five days of reintegration. This period was centred around digesting everything that happened in the four-month period abroad. It allowed Drew to discuss everything with the other interns who experienced similar things, and the supervisors and people behind the scenes.
“I thought coming back I was going to meet myself—I’d be a totally different person. But, that’s not how it works,” Drew said. “My values and my morals, I realized that they are true to what I thought they were, and that stood out a lot during that trip.”
That said, identity was important for this trip. Drew had only learned she was métis two years prior to the program.
“For me going [on the internship], I really, really enjoyed hearing everybody’s stories, and hearing these different teachings from different elders from different parts of Canada,” Drew said. “I brought the little with me that I did have but I left with so much more—just learning from people around me and participating in ceremony. It was a bunch of firsts for me which I really enjoyed, and now I carry that with me.”
The internship helped Drew find her Indigenous identity coming back to Canada.
“Going into it, I was already big on learning more. Now it has just exploded. So much that I do now is just on this path of learning and delving into the Indigenous aspects of my life,” Drew said.
Upon reflecting on her time in Peru, Drew mentioned that there were days that were especially difficult. But knowing what they needed and when saved Drew and the other interns from burning out.
“I definitely did burn out a few times. It was a big learning process with my mental health,” Drew said. “During that, I just had to sort of take a step back and realize that I can still contact my family, I’m here, I’m doing this, and it’s going to work out.”
Because Drew wants to be a teacher when she completes postsecondary, the internship helped her develop skills in a plethora of ways.
“It allowed me to see the way other people live and how they learn, as well. And, when I’m working with those kids I know there’s nothing else I want to do with my life than continue teaching,” Drew said.
The internship also serves as another remarkable outing on Drew’s resume. On future involvements with programs like the internship to Peru, Drew said she would love to go back, but she would rather help run the program so she could help other people get involved.
“It’s worth it. As scary as it can seem—leaving home for so long—the stuff you learn, what you see, the connections you make, it makes it so beyond worth it,” Drew said.