Monday, September 22, 2014
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How Island teens started a challenge that’s sweeping North America

Sarah Petrescu / Times Colonist

It started with two Victoria-area teens wanting to make the best of a rare snow day. But within weeks, the Jack siblings’ Winter Challenge video inspired an online movement embraced by First Nations communities and leaders.

“It wasn’t my intention, but it’s a positive thing,” said Kura Jack, 19, a second-year science and psychology student at the University of Victoria.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people from reserves as far apart as north Vancouver Island and Indiana and beyond have rolled in the snow and jumped in frigid waters to beat the winter couch-potato blues. Then they nominated their friends to do the same.

Teens, elders, police officers, even national chief Shawn Atleo did it. So did actors Adam Beach and Lorne Cardinal, musician Kinnie Starr and comedian Ryan McMahon. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson took a chilly dip in the ocean and challenged Premier Christy Clark to try it, too.

“It’s pretty cool to see all these people doing it,” said Jack. “It started as a small thing, but you do feel cleansed and better after.”

She recalled the late February day she got home from school and said to her brother: “We’re playing in the snow.”

Jack and her brother Cordell, 13, live with their parents in the Pauquachin nation near Sidney.

They went outside onto a blanket of snow, stripped down into summer gear and made snow angels. The pair filmed the event and in it challenged their cousins on Penelakut Island, where the Jacks grew up, to do the same. They posted it on Facebook.

“We nominated them to one-up us,” Jack said. The cousins had 24 hours. The challenge was accepted and posted to the social network with another group of friends tagged to take the winter challenge, too.

The idea quickly spread. A winter challenge Facebook page was set up on March 5 and now has more than 3,500 members and hundreds of videos posted.

Tim Dan from Dawson Creek stepped into a coffin-sized ice hole in Swan Lake in -34-degree weather, members of the Sechelt Nation made T-shirts for their challengers, an elder in her 80s went in with her walker, a Squamish woman did it dressed as Batman and Ahousaht dedicated their challenge to those who are ill, battling cancer and suffering with addictions.

“I’m happy to see it evolve into a pass-it-on type of kindness,” Jack said.

Fran Wallas, from the Quatsino Nation in Coal Harbour on the north Island, took her challenge and made it for the elders.

“I wasn’t feeling good to go in the water, so I decided to do something for the elders. They often get ignored,” Wallas said, choking up.

In her video, Wallas helps gather wood to take to elders in her community — including her 82-year-old mother who relies on a wood stove.

“I challenge everybody to do something for the elders. Even if you can’t get wood for them, make bread for them, pie, take their garbage out, anything,” she said in the video.

Wallas noted that many elders are low-income and struggle to buy the basics such as food. She said she’s not sure if her challenge will spread, but a few have taken it up and that makes her feel good.

“I think it’s fabulous. We’re all talking about it,” said Joe Gallagher, chief executive officer of the new First Nations Health Authority. “From our perspective, it falls in line with the wellness aspect in our communities, as well as traditional activities.”

Gallagher said bathing outdoors is part of many First Nations cultures, including his own in Sliammon near Powell River. It boosts health and the spirit, he said.

His organization uses social media for health campaigns, such as a Beefy Chiefs challenge to get in shape, but they have not seen something spread as far and wide as the Jacks’ winter challenge.

“First Nations people feel part of each other, there’s a sense of belonging,” Gallagher said. “So when something like this comes out that resonates, it takes off.”

The winter challenge is just one of several do-good online movements to go viral in the past few months. Many of them are a positive response to a dangerous social media drinking game called Neknomination, which started in Australia and has been linked to at least five alcohol-related youth deaths.

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