Hay River played host to about a dozen visitors on a Friendship Force exchange for the 10th year in a row last week.
“We’re a pretty popular destination for exchanges,” said Ron Shaw, co-ordinator for the Hay River Friendship Force group hosting the travellers. “The reason we get so many is that we’re the most northern exchange point in North America. People really have a desire to see the North.”
Friendship Force functions as a collective of smaller localized groups of about 50 members. Mostly made up of retirees intent on travel, there are branches in the Americas, Europe, and all over the world. Once a group pulls together about 15 people wanting to go on a trip, they co-ordinate with another branch in their desired destination area and embark on a home stay type of program that allows them to experience the culture of a place in a way most tourists cannot.
“Hay River is tough,” said Shaw, who in 10 years with the organization has yet to go on an organized exchange himself. “We’re a small community and it’s hard to get 15 people to go somewhere together when you only have 15 people in the group to begin with.”
The visiting group, this time from Lethbridge, Alta., also had some trouble getting together the Friendship Force norm of between 15 and 20 people for the exchange.
“We started out with 14 people from Lethbridge who wanted to come,” said the group’s exchange director Dave Clarke. “But as the date got closer, they started dropping off.”
Instead of cancelling, the Lethbridge branch invited members of other Friendship Force groups from across the country to visit Hay River and the South Slave along with them. In the end, they recruited people from Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to join the trip.
“It’s been great,” said Clarke. “Wherever we go we learn about that culture, but it’s interesting in this one that we’re meeting people from other parts of Canada, as well. It’s a bonus for us.”
Clarke said no one in the group had been this far north before, but that he and his wife had participated in exchanges in New Zealand, Australia, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey, among other places.
“One of the essential things about the Friendship Force is the opportunity to go live with people and experience a place not as a tourist,” he said. “You make friends all over the world and with email and Facebook, it doesn’t matter if those friends are next door or far away, you can still keep in touch.”
Members of the Hay River group welcomed those from Lethbridge (and elsewhere) into their homes for the week, taking them places average tourists might not know to go, like Fort Providence, Kakisa and Fort Smith. The idea is that visitors stay for free – with tradition dictating that once during the week the visiting contingent buys dinner for their hosts – and that the hosts can then expect the same on their own travels.
Part of the process is for the visitors to write a sort of essay for Friendship Force records about their experience, to which participants in future exchanges can refer.
Shaw said that kind of exposure and worldwide reach is good advertising for Hay River and the NWT.
“It’s just a great opportunity to explain what we’re doing up here,” he said. “And after this, we know that if we’re ever in Lethbridge, we’ll have a place to stay.”
— Sarah Ladik