The Ballantyne Project: Storyteller Dwight Ballantyne Creates Connection Across the Country
“Back when I was on the reserve, I felt like my story didn't mean anything, like sharing my story wasn't worth it. Being vulnerable and opening up to different community members in different different reserves, it's a beautiful thing of healing in a way because when you share your experiences, you find that other people have been through it and it's an open door to talk about the stuff that... I bottled up,” Dwight Ballantyne shares, reflecting on his experiences as a public speaker and the opportunities his work has created for himself and others.
He’s the founder of the Ballantyne project and he grew up in a Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Treaty Six territory. He got his strong work ethic from his grandfather who would take him to do hard work on the trapline. Ballantyne went on to get a job at the local convenience store which helped him gain self esteem and get off welfare. He was proud of that, but longed for something more.
“I always dreamt of leaving the reserve. But when you're on a reserve, it's hard to dream because of the lack of opportunities, resources, and funding if you don't graduate.”
“I knew I was going to leave the reserve someway, somehow. I didn't know how it was going to be. I just knew that I wanted to; there was more to life than being here and settling down. I want to see the world. I want to see something that I've never seen before,” he recalls.
He was playing hockey and struggling with drugs and alcohol. Ballantyne wanted a career and a life for himself but knew that he was not strong academically. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and do heavy equipment work. He saw an educational opportunity advertised on Facebook and at 21, he moved to British Columbia to go to a college preparatory program.
As part of the program, he went to school and worked part time, making connections, learning about new cultures and having different experiences. Ballantyne knew after experiencing all of that that he couldn’t go back home at the end of the year and he had to find something to do before the program ended. That’s when a teacher from a high school in Maple Ridge asked to meet with him and the Ballantyne Project was born.
“This is the scariest, most vulnerable thing I'm ever going to do, get on a stage and speak.”
He was afraid of public speaking but he tried it out because he wasn’t sure where it would lead. Working at a mill, he wanted to do something different. Ballantyne was terrified for his first presentation and he wasn’t sure it was very good. His own worries aside, that first presentation led to referrals and he was visiting schools and presenting multiple times a week until he decided to do this work full-time.
For the past three years, he has been doing presentations across the country talking about life on reserve, the effects of residential school and intergenerational trauma. In addition to schools, First Nations communities started reaching out to him and elders were expressing that he needed to do this. It all came from finding bravery inside him.
Now, Ballantyne loves spending time in community, sharing and laughing with people and enjoying the scenery. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city calms him and gives him perspective around the challenges faced by remote communities. He’s been evolving as a person, engaging in self-reflection and gaining a new understanding of how he got to where he is. In sharing his story, he’s seen others find the courage to do the same. “It allows us to open up and connect and relate to one another,” he smiles.
“When you face the hard stuff and get out of your comfort zone, that's where real life begins.”
His advice for Indigenous youth considering leaving home is to be brave and to be strong. He knows it’s easier said than done, but he also knows there are people who are willing to help if you put in the work. That’s why he thinks it’s important to make friends and show people that you want something for yourself.
Before going to BC, he had never been on a plane. Nervous, depressed and anxious about leaving behind everything he had ever known, he was also afraid of a plane crash and felt sick to his stomach. To get through the loneliness after he safely landed, he talked to his family every day but it was still hard. “It was just a lot of self determination, self belief and trying to be strong, mentally strong, which I really wasn't,” he recalls. He found friends who shared his interests in hockey and fitness but he still missed having tea with his grandma, going to barbecues and being on the trapline.
“I want to be mentally strong for this white world that I'm going to be living in.”
After persevering through the loneliness, he has advice for overcoming homesickness. “Find distractions, good outlets, good hobbies, good activities, stuff to fill your day with, positive stuff instead of thinking about the past, because that's gone,” he advises.
Ballantyne still struggles with homesickness but he sees all the opportunities available to him in his new life. “If you ever want to do something, it starts with getting out of your comfort zone and facing your fears and that's where it is. Find some good friends and support systems that will help you along the way. It's very simple, but it's not. But that's where it begins,” he concludes.
Back when he was on the reserve, he felt like his story didn't mean anything and like sharing his story wasn't worth it. Once a reluctant public speaker, he’s found a home on the stage and a new life as the founder of the Ballantyne Project. Dwight Ballantyne found healing and opportunities to connect in being vulnerable with audiences across the country. Sharing his story, he’s learned his story does matter and helped others give voice to their own.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.