The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Every school day, Genevieve Soler drives from her home in Canmore to the small K-8 school in Exshaw, where she works as a “success teacher” and as a member of the school’s support staff. In the school of 210, her responsibility is to ensure the students make the transition from Exshaw School to the bigger high school in Canmore and eventually, make it to graduation.

Soler's job is far from easy and there have been times when some of her students have fallen off the radar.

Audio produced by Tyler Ryan

"I really believe in building relationships, and I really believe in focusing on the social and emotional component of youth well being because if students don't feel safe [or] if they have other issues going on, they're not going to learn how to divide fractions" – Genevieve Soler.

According to Soler, some of her students are facing pressures to engage in risky behaviour and unfortunately, some of Soler’s former students have passed away from gang involvement, addictions and homicide as they got older.

“Many of these kids are essentially raising themselves,” says Soler.

But despite these difficulties, she is determined to put these kids on the road to success, even if there are bumps in the road. According to Soler, the age that her students are at —12 to 14— is pivotal in determining whether they take a “positive road” or “negative road” in their lives.

“This is the age where they choose whether or not they are going to stay in school, subconsciously or consciously,” she says.

A majority of the students who attend Exshaw school are from the nearby Stoney First Nations reserve in Morley, located 31 km northeast of the hamlet.

According to Soler, who has been an educator working within Indigenous communities for over 15 years, some students grow up in unstable environments at home and see first-hand the damage that drug and alcohol abuse causes.

Some of her students don't have a bed of their own. A component of Soler's work is to help them feel connected, welcomed, and free to talk about anything that may be affecting them in their lives.

"I really believe in building relationships and I really believe in focusing on the social and emotional component of youth well being because if students don't feel safe [or] have other issues going on, they're not going to learn how to divide fractions," says Soler.

Pushing back against the stigma of mental illness: Headstrong at MRU

In Oct. 2016, Soler brought a small group of her students to Mount Royal University to attend the Headstrong summit.

The aim of the yearly event is to help rural and First Nations, Métis and Indigenous kids look past the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, give them the tools they need to help their peers to open up and strengthen the discussion around mental health in their communities. At the summit, students met Daryl Kootenay, a soft-spoken youth leader also from Morley.

Kootenay and Soler know each other quite well — she was his former teacher.

At the Headstrong summit, Kootenay shared some of his personal stories and experiences as a kid growing up in the reserve. Kootenay grappled with depression and faced challenges that most kids will never incur, including one memory that has stuck with him since he was young.

DrezusJeremiah Manitopyes, who goes by his stage name "Drezus" is seen here rapping and performing for a group of students who attended the Headstrong Summit at Mount Royal University on Oct. 4. Manitopyes, originally from Saskatoon, Sask. was one of the main speakers at the Headstrong Summit, sharing his experiences dealing with mental health issues and also sharing with the assembly how he began his rap career.Photo by Tyler Ryan.

In a run-in with the RCMP, Kootenay — a preteen at the time — says he was stripped down and kept overnight in a holding cell because of suspicions that the vehicle he was in had an illegal firearm. Kootenay was eventually let go because it was clear that he did nothing wrong.

But that moment had a powerful impact on him and burned into his memory.

Kootenay says he felt a lot of negative emotions.

"That was the first time that somebody, an adult that was not a part of my family, gave me that look of evil. To see that in a person's eyes is very hard to forget. I just felt a lot of disgrace," he says.

Out of the classroom and into the forests of Kananaskis

As for Kootenay, he knows how important Soler is to the communities of Exshaw and Morley because it's people like her who have helped him – and so many others – achieve their dreams. Despite Kootenay and his wife Ariel Waskewitch-Crawler having their hands full with their baby daughter Nakoda, he says he will still speak to youth at events like Headstrong and will do what he can for his community.

Roughly two weeks after the Headstrong summit, Soler and her students were bussed out from Exshaw to the University of Calgary's field station, across from Barrier Lake in Kananaskis country. At the field station, the students —along with more indigenous and non-indigenous kids from Lawrence Grassi Middle School in Canmore — will spend four days under the guidance of Delmar Williams, Doug Saul and Allison Bray, three coordinators from Outward Bound Canada.

While at the field station, they will use nature as a classroom and will have these kids explore their culture as well. Through various team-building and leadership exercises, the coordinators hope that the students build the connections to help them make the transition from the school in Exshaw to the school in Canmore easier.

Given that both the students from Exshaw and Canmore will be living under the same roof, one aim of the project is to bridge the two communities of students together.

Soler, Kootenay, and the Outward Bound Canada coordinators know that this endeavor at the field station is just one small piece to a bigger puzzle.

But every little piece counts.

Soler has more planned for her students when their time at the field station comes to an end, but she hopes that this unique experience will help those students who may feel isolated find that sense of belonging to the whole.

As for Kootenay, he knows how important Soler is to the communities of Exshaw and Morley because it's people like her who have helped him – and so many others – achieve their dreams. Despite Kootenay and his wife Ariel Waskewitch-Crawler having their hands full with their baby daughter Nakoda, he says he will still speak to youth at events like Headstrong and will do what he can for his community.

"I believe strongly that the creator put each and every one of us here on Mother Earth for a reason," Kootenay says. " It doesn't matter if you're brown, white, black, whatever, we're all here to help each other out and chase our dreams," says Kootenay.

The Calgary Journal reached out to the Canmore Collegiate High School to ask about the graduation rate of indigenous students from Morley, Exshaw and the surrounding area. However, that information could not be released due to privacy issues.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The editor responsible for this article is Ingrid Mir and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.