For the first 21 years of his life, Dwight Ballantyne grew up in Montreal Lake Cree Nation—a community in Central Saskatchewan of only 1,200 people an hour away from the nearest city. Other than houses, there were only four buildings and one convenience store-gas station.
Opportunities are limited in many remote northern First Nations reserves, and the barriers and obstacles for those living there are often unknown and misunderstood by most Canadians. In 2019, Dwight founded The Ballantyne Project with the goal of raising awareness about the unique challenges faced by youth living in remote First Nations communities.
“After I left my reserve in Saskatchewan, I felt as if my life had just begun at the age of 21,” he says. When he first arrived in BC, Dwight attended school, found work and even created a Hockey Skills & Leadership Program specifically for young men from northern First Nations communities across Canada. In March of 2019, Dwight was invited to travel to Europe to represent Team Canada at an international men’s hockey tournament.
“It was on the plane home, as I reflected on all my experiences since leaving my own community, that I decided to use my voice and raise awareness about life for youth living in northern First Nations,” says Dwight, “When I returned home, I founded The Ballantyne Project.”
Dwight now travels the country bringing awareness to Canadians about life on remote reserves through movements like #WeSeeYou, and giving presentations to schools and communities in remote reserves, about what life is like outside.
“I never imagined myself speaking, but as I began to travel and share my story with First Nations youth, it made me realize how similar our challenges and life experiences were,” says Dwight, “We created a campaign called #WeSeeYou to let them know they were no longer an invisible segment of our society.”
When the pandemic hit, northern Indigenous communities were hit hard.
“We had become close to a Chief in one of the remote reserves we visited, and he shared with us that pandemic had caused a severe mental health crisis,” says Dwight, “As there is limited internet, people’s only source of fun was visiting each other, and they couldn’t do that because they had to isolate. The chief asked if we could send board games, card games and other activities to pass the time.”
Rallying the community, The Ballantyne Project shared a post on Facebook inviting people to get involved and donate games and more for activity boxes. The post blew up. More reserves began requesting donations, and more volunteers in the Lower Mainland pitched in to help.
“We shipped 500 boxes to 10 communities in the first year of COVID and five in our second year,” says Dwight.
In May 2022, The Ballantyne Project brought nine youth ages 16 to 23 plus four chaperones living in a remote fly-in community called Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, to Vancouver for a 5-day life experience and cultural trip.
They participated in everything from riding a bus and staying in a hotel, to being exposed to different jobs and exploring a university campus, experiences they wouldn’t get to have within their isolated community.
Through meeting new people and cultures and expanding their network, these youth will discover new opportunities and choices for their future. Northbound Supply Co. was thrilled to donate products to The Ballantyne Project, as part of this life-changing experience.
“With the help of connections and volunteers, we have been able to come across and connect with so many great brands and people, and make exciting things happen,” says Dwight, “Everyone has been so generous. Our partners, relationships and community relationships are really important to us.”
The pandemic also gave Dwight a moment to reflect and remind himself of what he does, and where his journey will take him next. “I want to see more change here in Canada within First Nations communities and bridge the gap.”