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While many students go on global exchanges to learn about other cultures, there's a lot of culture to experience right here in Canada. There are over one million Aboriginal Peoples in this country, but many Canadians know little about this rich and robust culture. 

The Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) is a group of young indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. They travel to across Canada to learn and experience the daily life of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. They believe education and awareness will bridge the gap between Canada's peoples.

The participants change from trip to trip, as youth aged 16-26 are invited to apply to attend during summer. These young people include both native and non-natives who are interested in understanding Canada's Indigenous Peoples. 

CRE was co-founded by Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Ronan McParland, and David Berkell. Dr. Weslty-Esquimaux is an assistant professor in Aboriginal studies and the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, and a member of the Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation in Lake Simcoe. Berkell, a former student of Wesley-Esquimaux's Aboriginal studies classes, also co-founded Operation Groundswell, a volunteer backpacking program. Together with McParland, the three of them created the Canadian Roots Exchange to offer a truly Canadian experience. 

Funded by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and the University of Toronto's Faculty of Social Work, Wesley-Esquimaux, Berkell, and McParland were able to take 23 students for eight days in the summer of 2009. That first journey, Shielded Minds, was turned into a documentary film. The documentary showcases the experiences these youth took part in.

There were a total of 14 trips in the summer of 2012, with more planned for 2013. This exchange program looks at creating positive change and improving understanding of aboriginal peoples in an enriching, educational manner, and enables youth to learn more about the Canadian context beyond any textbook.

We do everything. From recreational activities like going to sweat lodges, setting up fishing nets, going dogsledding, to learning about the political structure in a First Nation community, visiting health centers, public schools, and high schools, says Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux. Some of their experiences are based on the environment in which they are now in. So if they go camping, they have to learn how to make fires, set up camp, and learn to canoe.

The non-native youth get to go to a community that they would otherwise not have access to. They get to spend time with native peoples from all walks of life, says Wesley-Esquimaux. They've met principals with PhDs, they've met elders and seniors that share history that hasn't been written about yet, and they get to meet teachers in public schools on reserves. They get all kinds of access that they wouldn't normally have, so it really enhances their understanding and substantially changes the way they see the native community. 

CRE also allows native youth to reconnect with their culture. One girl met her father for the first time when we visited his reserve, says Wesley-Esquimaux. Another girl who had been adopted away from her mother because of drug addiction, and whose mother became one of the women killed by Robert Pickton. She came on exchange when she was 16. That was her first connection with the native community and she's been a vocal advocate ever since.

Kiera Dawn-Kolson (Tso'Tine-Gwich'in), an aboriginal activist, singer, songwriter, and multi-disciplinary artist was a part of the Indigenous Youth Gathering at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She was approached by Ronan McParland to advocate for CRE. That set her off to Sault Ste. Marie in 2011 to participate in one of the cross-cultural exchanges. 

It was a really great experience. I just absolutely have the highest respect for the Ojibwe people and I'm honoured to have been able to be a guest and to be so warmly welcomed, Kolson says. 

Kolson's experience inspired her to host an exchange in her Dene territory near Yellowknife. A lot of the participants that I was involved with last year were absolutely blown away because they didn't realize how integrated our spirituality was in our everyday life and the land around us, and they were absolutely humbled by our diligence to maintain this relationship with the land, Kolson says. 

Kolson recently won $1000 from the Ashoka Changemakers Competition for her proposal. They gave three awards to young women under 30 who were committed to trying to create positive awareness in their community, says Kolson. 

And creating positive changes it what's at the heart of the Canadian Roots Exchange. Wesley-Esquimaux notes that, although youth are exposed to stereotypical representations of native people in Canada, that changes during the exchange. The youth get out in the community, meet people, see the richness of First Nations people's lives, the richness of their experience, and it changes everything, she says. So many of them come back and work for us after that.

Kolson is one of many exchange participants who contributed back into the organization. To be able to provide an atmosphere for safe and open dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, I think, is instrumental for us to be able to heal and move forward as a nation.