In June 2017, DAREarts visited Neskantaga FN for the first time. The community faces many challenges, including a 20 year old boil water advisory, homes lost to mold and poor construction, and an ongoing state of emergency due to youth suicides. Our team of artist-educators worked with the grade 4 to 8 students in a week-long, leadership-based arts workshop that culminated in a community showcase.
The DAREarts team – Lead Teacher Laura MacKinnon, Juno-nominated musician Glenn Marais, and artist Karen Cowderoy – were welcomed by elementary school principal, Haley Houle. Learning the DARE values of Discipline, Action, Responsibility and Excellence, the children were bright-eyed and attentive, excited for the adventure ahead. They learned that the workshops were part of the DAREarts and Stratford ‘Spirit Bear’ project, connecting local stories and knowledge with modern and traditional art forms. Elder Mary Sakanee, the school guidance councillor, shared her knowledge of bears, and inspired the children.
Throughout the week, the children worked in two groups: Musicians and Visual Artists. They moved seamlessly between these groups so that everyone could experience all of the workshops. The musicians learned from Glenn how to use his recording equipment and software; create digital bear-inspired tracks and beats; brainstorm, compose and record a song; and come together as a choir. The visual artists worked with Laura and Karen to each create their own bear-inspired canvas painting; learn to photograph and project their sketches to transfer them to canvas; work together to create a large community mural; and practice a special “art walk” to showcase their creations. The younger students also learned bear-inspired choreography!
On their last DAREarts Day, the children presented a Community Showcase at the school for families, elders, teachers, and Chief Moonias to celebrate their accomplishments! It started with an art catwalk where each child walked out with their paintings as their music played. Some were still very shy but the audience cheered them on. All of the children then gathered as a choir and sang the song they wrote, “Tease the Moon”. The audience sang along with the chorus! To finish, we played a slideshow of photos taken by the students and set to their song. There was huge applause! When everyone stood up to go to the feast, the Chief asked us to play the song again! All the community members and younger students who worked on the mural gathered around it and proudly pointed out the parts they had done. For a first showcase in a new community, it was remarkable: well attended, enthusiastic response, great conversations post-show, smiles from the kids and discussions of returning next year.
Chief Moonias talked about next steps. He wants all the paintings to get sent to Thunder Bay to be framed and then come back and be hung in the school and in people’s homes. He also pointed out that the creative brainstorming the students did with DAREarts is something they should do more often as a way to express themselves. He wants the students to become better prepared for high school and things they will have to face in life, like speaking up. He was so proud of what the kids had done and it was heartening to hear him thinking about next steps.
DAREarts Lead Teacher, Laura MacKinnon, reflected: “While the students were used to discipline and order at school, they had no schools arts experience: no music, no art beyond some colouring and crafts, no drama, no dance. All the new experiences we presented were a challenge, but the teachers were really encouraging of the kids’ participation. The kids really enjoyed everything, and it’s wonderful to inspire their creativity and give them access to new ways of expressing themselves. The Chief’s commitment to the community’s well-being is highly respected; he makes a lot of noise and won’t back down until real changes happen.”
The children of Neskantaga are incredible young leaders whose voices will power the community forward. They deserve to be heard, and DAREarts is helping them to ignite change. We are deeply thankful and humbled to have been welcomed into this community, and we look forward to seeing the future that these young leaders will build!
DAREarts is a charity that empowers young at-risk Canadians aged 9 to 19 to ignite change as leaders. Visit darearts.com to learn more. DAREarts ‘First Roots’ program partners with First Nations to work alongside youths, local artists and elders and, together, address challenges such as school absenteeism, hopelessness and suicide.
DAREarts’ “Spirit Bear” project’s education partner is The Stratford Festival. PROJECT SUPPORTERS: Province of Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Sport; Ontario150; Northbridge Insurance; Anne Livingston; David & Teresa Thomas; Noront Resources; The Paul Semple Award; Allan Drive Middle School; Streetsville Secondary School