In the Know On the Land: Noel-Leigh Cockney Brings Outdoor Education To a New Generation
“I'm very lucky with how I've grown up with my grandparents and my mom, they taught me everything I know about being on the land”, Noel-Leigh Cockney reminisces. He grew up both in Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik Northwest Territories, above the Arctic Circle, along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, going out hunting and fishing all his life with his grandparents and mother. He works for Dechinta, an on the land based programming organization.
“My grandfather taught me so much about traveling not just on the tundra in the summer and winter time, but being able to notice different things, to be able to take that to different climates and different landscapes, to be able to adapt pretty quickly to how to navigate and different terrains, which has been really great,” he remembers. His family taught him how to fish, hunt and to prepare and dress animals. His grandparents took students out and now he’s doing the same. “I'm very grateful to have come full circle like that,” he continues.
The lessons they teach at Dechinta aren’t just about surviving outdoors. They also share with students about thriving together in relationship, Reconciliation and decolonization, through accredited programming at UBC. Dechinta teaches participants about the past and the skills they need to navigate the present, the future and the outdoors.
Cockney took Outward Bound courses in high school, and more outdoor courses sponsored by the government through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He studied in Arizona and New Mexico before finishing his schooling back home. Cockney went to a college outdoor education program in northern Wisconsin and learned about group dynamics and conflict resolution so he could take groups out on the land harmoniously.
After graduation, Cockney worked for NOLS teaching backpacking, rock climbing, and whitewater canoeing courses. He worked in Wyoming, Utah, Yukon Territory, and Squamish, British Columbia for six years, out on the land teaching at least half time. He also updated their safety protocols, policies and procedures. Later, Cockney moved back home and worked with Tundra North tours year-round for three years.
When the pandemic hit, tourism came to an abrupt halt and a friend sent him a link from Dechinta. Cockney applied and was hired to run the programming for six communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. As their safety coordinator, he draws on his experience with logistics and food preparation, as well as the things he learned in school and from his family to make sure everyone stays safe outdoors.
His job has him working in different roles in different areas. In Yellowknife, he has more of a supportive role, where when he’s working in his home community, he takes on more of a leadership role in creating and running programs. Cockney loves watching students learn different skills and being part of passing on knowledge, seeing them learn how to clean a fish, make dried fish, figure out where to do the cuts and move from being coached to performing skills unassisted as their comfort grows.
His hope for his work in the future is to create water vessels like the big canoes his ancestors would use along the coast to go hunting seals and whales. Cockney would like to take the vessels and go from community to community, tracing the tracks of his ancestors and go where they travelled, how they travelled. Doing that all summer with a core group of students, and picking up where they left off the next summer would be something he would enjoy.
Cockney’s advice to youth is the same advice he received from his grandfather growing up. He always told him “find a job that you have fun you're going to really enjoy, because once you find that it's not really going to be work, it's going to be like something that you're passionate about, something that you really want to do.” Cockney found that for himself in his current work where he gets to teach outdoor education, bring his cultural upbringing into his day to day activities and be outside.
That’s why he suggests youth find what they are passionate about and pursue that, whether that’s being out on the land, working with technology, getting into the trades. He also explains it can take longer for some people to find the thing they love to do, but it’s worth it when they do. “Once you find that thing, just go with it. Just take that passion into that job,” he advises.
Noel-Leigh Cockney took his passion for being out on the land into his job, coming full circle after being raised by a family that provided outdoors education just like he does. He’s showing a new generation of students how to thrive wherever they find themselves, in the great outdoors and in relationships with others. Drawing on the wisdom of his family and the strength of his culture, he’s passing down knowledge and following his dreams on the tundra.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
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.