07/23/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Up Friendship Creek With a Paddle


Take one cop, add one or two at-risk aboriginal youth, put these ingredients in a canoe and let simmer for two hours. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Nope. It's called the Flotilla for Friendship and for 12 years it's succeeded in building bonds between two very disparate groups: police and aboriginal youth.

It's Wednesday, July 18, and a crowd mills around under the hot morning sun beside Dow's Lake on Ottawa's Rideau Canal. Uniforms from the Ottawa Police, Ontario Provincial Policeand RCMP are visible as more than 30 officers mingle.

Down the boardwalk a knot of young aboriginals huddle, glancing suspiciously at the mob of police. A voice rises above the chatter as Flotilla organizer Lynda Kitchikeesic harries everyone into action. Officers and youth are herded to get fitted for a life jacket, then the pairing begins.

The bolder officers circulate among the youth, looking for paddling partners. Others let Kitchikeesic find them young teammates.

Ottawa Sergeant Denis Hall connects with nine-year-old Johanna Toulouse, whose mother is from the Sagamok First Nations Reserve, located on the north shore of Lake Huron. Their team is joined by Jennifer Jerome, a youth counsellor with an aboriginal women's shelter. Hall asks Johanna what their team name should be, but the girl shrugs and mutters, avoiding eye contact.

Crystal Rawlings, 21, in a burst of confidence picks a police officer she thinks looks "approachable" -- Ottawa Constable Jacky Lord. But as they wait, she keeps to herself and they don't make conversation. When the pairing is done, Kitchikeesic calls all the participants into a circle for a traditional First Nations water ceremony. A native elder talks about respecting the water and a woman sings an Algonquin song of welcome while beating a native drum. Kitchikeesic hands out medicine bags she has prepared herself containing items symbolic of friendship and protection.

Then the 21 police officers and 47 aboriginal youth pile into their canoes. Along the Rideau Canal people stop to watch as the fleet, canoes of all different colours, head up Ottawa's historic waterway, shepherded by three police patrol boats.

Once they're out on the water, says Kitchikeesic, the "magic" happens. She started the Flotilla for Friendship in 2000.

Distrust of police is both common and deep-rooted among many in Canadian aboriginal communities. In the days of the residential schools, police were often the ones who came to take the children away.

Today, Kitchikeesic says, aboriginal youth often only run into police when they're removed from troubled homes. On the streets, police are seen as harassers: the ones who drive aboriginal youth from their hangouts and arrest them for drug or alcohol use.

Rawlings says she has been beaten by police officers in the past. She also admits to getting aggressive and confrontational with police. The officers themselves often see only the troubled side of aboriginal youth. Hall's beat is Ottawa's downtown Byward Market district where he often encounters at-risk aboriginal youth.

Forced to paddle together in the canoes, cops and youth get to see another side of each other.

"The kids are always surprised to realize that cops are human. For the officers, they see these wonderful, warm kids and realize the poverty they live in," says Kitchikeesic.

Rawlings and Lord almost tip their boat right over before they learn to work as a team. As they paddle Rawlings tells Lord about her life on the street and the challenges she faces.

"I don't think in a different setting she would have opened up like that," says Lord later. "She's a good kid."

"Once you realize you're working physically with someone to achieve something, it creates a bond," adds Kitchikeesic.

An hour later, when the flotilla reaches the Rideau locks in the shadow of the Chateau Laurier, suspicious glances have been replaced with big grins. Johanna, the nine-year-old, chatters to Hall as he and Jerome carry their canoe around the locks and down to the Ottawa River.

At 1:30 p.m. the flotilla arrives at its final destination, the aboriginal centre on Victoria Island, in the middle of the Ottawa River. Tired but clearly happy, police and youth talk, laugh and enjoy a lunch of hamburgers and hot dogs under a pavilion. When the meal is over, they join hands in a circle for a short closing ceremony.

The experience has had its intended effect.

Hall and Jerome trade contact information. As they paddled he learned about the services available for youth through her shelter which will help him better help the kids he meets on his beat.

Lord can't say enough about the experience. Noting the bad press police often get, he says, "For once the word policing is related to something positive." And on his new relationship with Rawlings: "If I bump into her later, we can interact differently."

As for Rawlings, her whole opinion of police has changed. "I used to think they're all A-holes, but I can't think about them like that anymore."

The Flotilla is already expanding to other cities like Kingston and Sudbury, and Kitchikeesic hopes to eventually put police and youth together in canoes across Ontario.

All too often we read about the gulf that exists between our police forces and diverse communities. As she watches cops and aboriginal kids sitting side by side, it's clear Kitchikeesic has found the recipe for friendship and trust.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free The Children, and are authors of the new book Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians