KAMLOOPS – Kenzie Sakaki-Hodder remembers with a little laugh how his high school tried to put training wheels on his graduation celebrations. They arranged a number of activities for graduates to offer alternatives to the obvious: Bush parties and all the drinking, drugs, sex and violence that can go along with them.
He gives them passing marks for creating so-called dry, or safe grad activities, but says for many students in his South Kamloops secondary class of 2016, it was dry in name only.
“Everybody pre-drank before and some people tried to sneak booze in. It’s a normal thing,” he says. “You’re there for so long. By the end or even halfway through it all wears off and you’re sober anyways.”
We have entered the final six weeks of school and that means students are throwing parties, and lots of them. While thousands of dollars have been raised for ‘dry grad’ parties and events like paintball, river rafting, dances and dinners, those are supporting acts to the main event: Torch pass parties where nearly everything — and everyone — goes.
“Yeah, they had a big assembly with the Grade 11 and 12 students telling us not to go. I guess it may have turned some people away,” Sakaki-Hodder says. “We were going to it either way, so it didn’t really matter.”
It’s gone down this way for generations. Some parents are wise to the tradition and others are oblivious, he says.
“Some of them definitely know what’s going on and what’s happening. They understand. Then some of them have no clue and let their kids go, and get mad over it,” Sakaki-Hodder says.
Graduating students in Kamloops throw several parties, at least three per year, according to Sakaki-Hodder. While some parties are for Grade 12 students only, often the Grade 11 students are included.
These “passing of the torch” bush parties happen every year, and despite the finger-wagging from school administration, fights and police intervention, teens flock to them almost without fail.
Students organize the event on Facebook, pick a large isolated area in the backcountry and light a bonfire. Sakaki-Hodder says there’s always plenty of alcohol and some teens smoke pot.
He says one party in particular can get out of hand. There is always “lots of fighting” at the bash where all graduating students in the district are in attendance. He says the smaller party where the attendees all go to the same school is more enjoyable and even “tame.”
“The smaller one is nicer because you know everyone,” he says. “Everyone just hangs around the fire talking and drinking.”
After police inevitably snuff out the bonfire and break up the parties, plenty of evidence remains. He says most students share photos and videos on social media.
If RCMP catches wind of a party, a few officers arrive first to determine the size of the crowd, whether alcohol or drugs are involved, or if other resources like police dog services need to be sent.
“Whether it’s on crown land or private property, if minors are there drinking or doing drugs we are going to shut it down. It’s illegal and we do it for safety’s sake,” Cpl. Jodi Shelkie with the Kamloops RCMP says.
Shelkie says the potential of illegal activity being captured on social media is a risk students should not take.
“With so many people catching things on iPhones, don’t risk doing drugs that could influence your future. It can impact your future and last for a lifetime,” she says.
She's personally escorted teens home after bush parties and says the consequences are real.
“Do you really want to show up at your doorstep at 2 a.m. with the police? I have taken many kids home, and I don’t know any parents who were impressed,” she says. “Often remorse comes later once the young person has sobered up and realizes the damage they’ve done to property or to another person.”
Local parties have made headlines in the past.
Back in 2013, students threw a party in the Tree Flats area of Barnhartvale and a 16-year-old girl was allegedly assaulted. More recently at a 2016 Inks Lake bush party, another 16-year-old girl was allegedly assaulted.
In all likelihood, students will continue to look past the potential fights to spend time and celebrate with their friends, many of whom they grew up with.
“You know everyone. You’ve been going to school with these people for years,” he says. “That’s what everyone is doing that night, so you go with your friends and have a good time.”
School District 73 did not respond to interview requests for this story.
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