Swapping conch shell for a bell, youth in Belize inspired by North End movement

By | June 12, 2019

An Indigenous-led movement to end violence and help young people in Winnipeg’s North End has spread beyond Canada’s borders and inspired Mayan youth in Belize to take similar action in their communities.

Now a crew of University of Manitoba students community activists, including Michael Champagne and Kakeka Thunder Sky from Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, are travelling to the Central American country to learn about the local culture and the work they are doing.

“It’s super exciting,” said Champagne, who founded the weekly Meet Me at the Bell Tower gatherings, now going on for nearly eight years of meeting at the bell tower on Selkirk Avenue every Friday.

“We never imagined that our little bell tower rallies would be heard so far away, but I think we’ve been really inspired. We’ve been inspired, and other people have been inspired by us.”

The Mayan youth from Belize have even adopted a name inspired by the bell tower, but adapted to their local culture, calling their weekly gatherings Sounding the Conch Shell.

Champagne explains that in Mayan culture, the conch shell is like a horn used to call people to gather, and the person who sounds the conch shell carries spiritual gifts and responsibilities.

“So I just think it’s a beautiful vision that the young people have because it reminds me a lot of the megaphone at Meet at the Bell Tower,” he said.

In a further adaptation of the bell tower model, the Mayan youth have focused their efforts on the environment and stopping violence against Mother Earth, Champagne says.

“I know that that’s going to be at least one element of the focus that was determined by the Mayan youth themselves,” he said. “And as we move forward, any direction of Sounding the Conch Shell will be determined by those young people.”

The relationship with the youth from Belize grew out of partnerships with the University of Manitoba community service learning department. Last year, the bell tower hosted the youth while they were in town for activities with the U of M department.

“We were able to make an impression on one of the young men, named Roberto, who went home and immediately got to work organizing, applying for funding, connecting people together,” Champagne said.

The trip will last from June 18 to July 1.

This isn’t the first time the bell tower model has been adopted outside of Winnipeg.

Youth in Sagkeeng First Nation have started meeting regularly to revive their culture empower young people, Champagne says, adding  a group called Assembly of Seven Generations meets every Friday night In Ottawa to bring Indigenous youth together to stop violence and revive culture.