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Discipline, Action, Responsibility, Excellence

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If You’re an Indigenous Youth, Don’t Read This

Written by Cathy Elliott (celliott@darearts.com).

The toxic headlines, the comment sections, the conversations with “helpful” strangers, the radio call-ins…the environment that provokes racism and provides discourse that is potentially deadly; how does a young Indigenous youth process and proceed?

It’s hard enough just being a “Native teen.” When you’re locked down in “Indian” designation, you have to cope with the confusion, fear, anger and anguish that you are exposed to every day.

This reality was exacerbated recently when tweets, Facebook groups, politicians and other forums began talking about a teen who was murdered on a farm in Saskatchewan.  Some of the things written about this tragedy are beyond distressing. They are triggering, harmful and dangerous. They incite hateful behaviour, and the initial self-preserving response by Indigenous individuals is either to lash out or hide from them.

A teen or child living in this toxic environment is already dealing with poor education, missed economic opportunities and generational trauma. In a time when we are all talking about Reconciliation and forgiveness, it’s hard to raise your head when you read, “His only mistake was leaving three witnesses.”  And people are actually agreeing with him, saying things like, “It’s open season on Indians.”

The mental anguish caused by this is real. It’s not just your imagination when you see the vitriolic discourse by people with real names, real email addresses and photos on their Facebook comments. It means that they don’t care what people think.  It’s a full-on assault on every young Indigenous person’s well-being.

What kind of mechanisms and supports are there for young people?

The arts, along with cultural teachings do help.  Here’s how:

Kids speak up.

Give the kids a fighting chance by providing a forum in which to speak up about themselves to the general population.  When DAREarts held workshops last June with Attawapiskat First Nation students and teachers about media attention, the youths turned the camera on their community and ended their music video with, “Hi Canada.” They wrote a song – Walking For Peace – that voiced their concerns about their futures, their community and their mental health. They were honest with themselves by talking about suicide among their young friends, siblings, cousins and distant relations. The resulting video was seen by 4,500 viewers in two months. They used their voices to celebrate their strength and reach out to the rest of us, to see the “good side of Atta, to be the good things that matta.”

Kids Kill the Stereotypes.

The Internet has become the biggest community in history, hooking up Canadian Indigenous kids through social media with kids all over the world. When someone uses racist language, youths can choose to organize their emotions and answer back in a positive, even humorous way. Through poetry, music, art, video and theatre, they answer to and dispel the stereotypes that weigh them down and drain their potential for success. They learn how to use art to turn back the negative feelings and make art with it and provide real facts, real impressions of their lives, inner and out.

Kids Channel Anger.

Art is the best, best, BEST way to put down a hater.  It may not get through to the person who initiated the anger, but it will vent that anger in a positive way. People invent things, make positive historical decisions, cure diseases, save the planet by first becoming angry. Nothing wrong with being angry. But if that anger stays inside and doesn’t have an outlet, it festers. And that kind of anger creates illnesses, both mental and physical, which can kill. Ask any Indigenous artist, world-wide, if they were angry when they created their best works. Nothing is more powerful than an angry artist.

Kids Become Teachers.

By being proactive, kids create the answers through art and when they need it, it’s right there. In a picture. In a video. In a poem. In 2014, Grades 5 – 8 students in a DAREarts project collectively wrote about water, land and concerns about their First Nation home in a poem called, “The Land Speaks”, which they turned into a music video using dioramas and their voices. Their message is disturbing in a good way. We can learn from the kids about what they fear and desire. This messaging comes from them, unprompted and looped back by their Elders. The confirmation of their inherent knowledge by their cultural Elders is invaluable. Vital. Especially when a comment comes up on a newspaper article about defending our planet and their way of life.

One of the saddest headlines I’ve read recently is that Northern Ontario First Nations students were afraid to go to school in Thunder Bay this spring. After the inquiry that examined the deaths of First Nations teens over the last several years there, the cloud of fear and mistrust floats heavily in the air.   It’s not going to be easy to disperse.  But, for the anxiety and dark feelings that Indigenous youth are experiencing, collaborative art with artists who have a deep understanding of the issues at hand, and Elders who use wisdom and traditional/non traditional practices, there is a way to break it down a little.

And that in itself can save lives.


DAREarts is a children’s charity that uses the arts to empower at-risk young people to become leaders. Our lead sponsors are Northbridge Insurance, Scotiabank, TD Bank Groupand the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.


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The Economics of Despair And Pretty Words

Written by Cathy Elliott (celliott@darearts.com)

Photo by Craig A.

Photo by Craig A.

For around nine years I’ve been writing about the good news coming out of Canada’s remote and not so remote First Nations. I wish I could write something inspirational today. I wish I could list successes, accomplishments and victories. The good news about our Anishnabek, Mi’kmaw, Cree, Blackfoot, Inuit, Mohawk kids. But today, on this beautiful spring day, I just can’t.

The news coming out of our Indigenous communities is discouraging. Indigenous kids are lagging so far behind in so many ways. Our girls and women are still going missing or dying violently. Our people are dying too young from lack of adequate medical services. Children are still being taken from their mothers. Educational funding is a bad joke. Families are still fractured. I want so desperately to write something that will celebrate our youth but, as we move into Aboriginal Month, I find myself searching for the right thing to say.

I know in my heart that people are generally, good. Generous. I’ve seen it. When I talk to people about the conditions in which our kids are living, they respond in a good way, reach into their hearts and concur. They say pretty things about how much work we all have to do. We’re all Treaty People.

What I find infuriating is the fact that we all still insist that our Indigenous kids take it on themselves, without giving them the tools to do what we tell them to do:  Learn your history. Honour your culture. Listen to your Elders, who have been robbed of their own histories and cultures. Stay in school. Don’t have kids at so young an age. Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. Don’t bully.  Be proud. Look after each other. And do all these things while your parents fall apart because they don’t have enough money to feed you because food prices are so high, and the school you go to doesn’t have toilet paper and the community you live in has radioactive particles in its water. Or no running water at all.

They just can’t. They’re kids. They don’t have the capacity yet to solve the problems their grandparents are struggling to overcome. They know about generational trauma. They know, now, because of the internet, how far behind they are. They know now, what other people’s expectations are for them. Which aren’t very high. They know now, about every murder, arrest, disappearance, beating, failure of someone just like them. They can read for themselves the TRC’s findings and take in the scope of Canada’s failings and outright genocide.

When I hear about more suicide pacts, attempts, successes, my heart breaks more. I see their faces. I see them smiling, joking, wrestling with life’s mysteries, reaching out to their grandparents and my heart bursts with love, pride and despair. When I see them dance, sing, drum, draw, write and speak eloquently about the world as they see it, my mind is overwhelmed by their potential. And I am struck dumb by the idea that their potential is being smothered. Wilfully. With impunity.

I’m not sure I can find pretty words anymore.

I know life isn’t fair. It’s just that, it seems to me, Canadians are ok with the idea that if it’s less fair for some, we can all just move on.

Yes, we’re grappling with the task of reconciliation. Yes, we all have a lot of work to do. But when are we all going to combine the same kind of effort it takes to rescue people from other countries and reach out to Albertan fire victims? (Some of whom, by the way, were Indigenous firefighters fighting the Beast while their own homes evaporated in the flames) If Attawapiskat and other First Nations can raise thousands of dollars for Albertans, why can’t an entire Nation do the same for them?

We’re moving into 150 years of confederation. I remember the 100 year mark, and had no idea what that meant to the Indigenous people in this Dominion. A new flag, Bobby Gimby’s “One, little, two little, three Canadians” Expo ’67…I remember lots of unbridled optimism about a young country ready to wow the world. I didn’t see then the irony of a celebration that didn’t take into account the nations that existed and still exist here. I didn’t know on whose ground my own feet were treading.

Nine years ago, I began my own education. One I didn’t have when I went to school. I was given this gift when DAREarts sent me out to help design a program as an answer to a call for help from the community of Webequie. They had a cluster of suicides and were reeling from shock, grief and anger. They did all the work. I was there more as a witness to their pain, with the ability to help us all channel this pain into something remarkable. It takes generations to work through this pain. There is no magical salve. But Webequie is persevering. Those kids are adults now, working hard to make a safe, warm, nurturing home for their own kids. But it’s hard.

I’ve been shocked by what I’ve seen over the past nine years. I’m still shocked by what I see, every day. We can all say pretty words about how non Indigenous kids feel about those poor kids up in Attawapiskat, and how schools are putting together letters of love and care packages.  But we can’t hide the dismal fact that Attawapiskat is only one of dozens of Canadian Indigenous communities affected by youth suicides.

There needs do be more action. No more pretty words. Stand up for your Indigenous children, Canada. Please. Because I’m not sure I’m talking to real people out there. I hear a lot of support from Child Advocates and health and wellness and arts organizations about their good news, but I’m not hearing from my neighbours down the road who’d heard stuff on CBC and shrug because they don’t know how to make it better. I’m not hearing from the cashier at the local grocery “would you like to donate a tooney for “Schools for First Nations?” I’m not hearing from you. I need to know that you, ordinary Canadian citizens, that you really care. That instead of saying,” What can I do?” or “I didn’t learn about that in school”  to Indigenous people like me, get on the internet and find the countless Twitter accounts that can help you understand more about our history. Read the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. Get on the phone, ask the charity questions and actually DONATE some money. Organize. Go to your nearest Search Engine and type Indian Act. Educate yourself about the economics of despair. What Canada is built on. Get past guilt and YOU move on. Please. Then, maybe your children will know what THEY can do to make Canada a more equitable place as we move into and celebrate our second century.

I’m done with pretty words. I’m done with preaching to the choir.

I need to see what action can do. I need to see Canadians show the world how mature Canada is, and how capable we are as a caring, progressive people. DAREarts put me to a challenge; to think of others besides myself, to use my talents to help Indigenous kids explore and demonstrate the excellence in themselves. I challenge you, I DARE you to take to heart the responsibility we all share for our children’s future.

Then we will truly have something to celebrate about.

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DAREarts Powwow Hockey Dance

Title Powwow Hockey DanceA page from a DAREarts Artist-Educator’s Diary – Webequie, February 21, 2016
Waiting for the Plane

Students collaborated on a mask, then posed for a "splice" of their work; two artists, one goal: take a stand. Photo: Cathy Elliott

Students collaborated on a mask, then posed for a “splice” of their work; two artists, one goal: take a stand. Photo: Cathy Elliott

“We stand alone with amazing; the sound of our skates,
on the clear northern ice makes us feel alive and free
It’s here where we speak our language, cool and unique, ancient and beautiful…Oji-Cree” – DAREarts Webequie youths song, 2016

Yesterday, I was sitting at the receptionist’s desk at the school in the northern fly-in First Nation Webequie on a long distance call talking to an Elder when I heard a little voice. Well, rather, a strong young voice.

“Do you have my phone number? I need my stick.”

I was totally confused. In one ear was Elder Cliff Standingready, and in the other ear was a seven-year-old boy tugging on my arm. I asked him what his name was and he told me and as I spoke with Cliff, I looked desperately for anything that would possibly reveal this kid’s home number.

“Is there anyone in the school besides us?” I asked, “Morris?”

“Yeah, he’s in there.” I finished up my call with Cliff and we went to the school custodian’s office door. As we walked down the hall, I looked down. The kid was wearing his skates, walking on the school floor. “We need his hockey stick,” I said to Morris. “He doesn’t know his dad’s number.” Morris got on his cell phone and called for the stick. In a few moments, his dad arrived in his truck and gave him his stick. Off he went to the outdoor ice rink to play with his friends. All good.

The outdoor rink is a magnet for kids in Webequie. Photo: Laura MacKinnon

The outdoor rink is a magnet for kids in Webequie. Photo: Laura MacKinnon

I have been here for exactly a week. Our plane will be leaving at 3:55pm, and I’ll be back in regular Southern Ontario life again. This has been a special week for me. We missed a year coming to Webequie, due to lack of funds. I was heartbroken. I personally feel that Webequie is a second home to me. Kids like the little guy in the skates have grown up over the years. Two of them are on the ice road as I write this, on their “Healing Journey Home” walk from Thunder Bay’s Regional Hospital to Webequie’s Health Centre.

Eric and family members are raising awareness of the dire conditions that exist in health institutions in First Nations. Not just dire. Deadly. They are dragging an oxygen tank 1,000 kilometres to mourn the loss of their aunt/mother due to lack of medical resources in their own community. They should be arriving here just days after we take off. Maybe we’ll see them from the plane, down on the river road. The tracks they leave will surely indicate the drag of a heavy toboggan, but light hearts as they achieve this hugely symbolic gesture. The people at the still ongoing Powwow dance and pray for them.

Bullying occurs on and off the ice. We asked the question: How can we "reclaim the game" for future Indigenous generations? Photo: Cathy Elliott

Bullying occurs on and off the ice. We asked the question: How can we “reclaim the game” for future Indigenous generations? Photo: Cathy Elliott

Time takes on a rubbery consistency here. It slips by so fast, yet, when you stand and look at the river, it is ice hard. The same rink that was there in 2007 is here, attracting kids to its -30C wooden enclosure, lit with possibly the only outdoor lights in Webequie. Northern lights dance overhead, and under flying snow or sunshine, the kids are there, practicing, skating, socializing.

After dark, the kids literally run (or skate) in packs, yelling and screaming. I love it. I love it! Laura, one of my DAREarts mates, comments, “I don’t remember kids being out in the dark like this when I was a kid.”  And I guess, in big cities, that wouldn’t be possible. I commented, “…and cue the kids,” as if we were in a movie about days gone by. Webequie is indeed a place where the rink is the safest place to play. But it’s also a place where bullying thrives. With sometimes deadly consequences. But that’s another story…

Web students StageLet’s talk about the light here. As it happens, there is a Powwow going on. It’s a beautiful day. Last night was the triumphant finish to a four-day DAREarts workshop in which the high school students created a dance (with Laura MacKinnon) to a song they wrote (with Glenn Marais) with of their painted goalie masks (with yours truly) to the Powwow audience. The Drummers, community members, tourists (a documentary crew) watched these brave youths perform. Moments before, they were struck with stage fright but they forged on and did an amazing performance, making their community proud.

(On a side note, the Old Man Bear Drummers were led by Bob Wabasse and younger boys were drumming. The original drummers, Eric, Norm and Leslie, were all on the ice road. It was great to see the young drummers picking up the drumsticks and singing their hearts out during the Powwow.)

Hockey Stick CircleEvery day, over twenty students came to school and worked hard. Every night, after school, they came and worked on the guitar lessons or their projects, painting, writing and dancing in a tiny portable. The guitars are the seeds of a guitar club, thanks to TD’s MusiCounts grant and Glenn Marais’ lessons. The lessons will continue with the help of local teachers. Glenn will keep in touch with the teachers and students with touch up lessons, tabs, exercises and songs.


One young man, Preston, came in every night and practiced until his fingers bled. He worked his fingers to find the chords and didn’t say a word. The thoughtfulness behind the goalie masks was breathtakingly beautiful. I loved the dichotomy of ideas that somehow fused together as art. The personal sharing that these youth put forward. Love for family, land and culture came through strong and clear. The idea of hockey being rooted in Indigenous ground appealed to them, and they illustrated that with a positive attitude.

“Take a stand, try not to break
Every goal you make is a stand you’ll take
The only way to score is to take a chance
It’s a part of our lives, this sacred dance
That’s in our hearts, and in our pride, our history, that’s deep inside
So hear our song, we never give up
This game we play, it’s like the game of life
When we stand together,
We are one”

Laura and the dancers forged a beautiful moment in the choreography that sticks in my mind today. On the line, “It’s like the game of life,” they raised their sticks in a salute to the sky. That pretty much summed up the way they responded to the workshop; their own discipline, their perseverance and the challenge to present it not only to a gathering that included outsiders. This was empowering to them and the community.

Youth rehearse an hour before the Powwow commences. Jittery nerves turn to determination and pride. Photo Cathy Elliott

Youth rehearse an hour before the Powwow commences. Jittery nerves turn to determination and pride. Photo Cathy Elliott

Along with them, I “Stand alone with amazing.”

By Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program Associate

DAREarts Webequie Team: Cathy Elliott, Glenn Marais and Laura MacKinnon

DAREarts Webequie Team: Cathy Elliott, Glenn Marais and Laura MacKinnon

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Why We Need to “Reclaim the Game”


A hockey stick created by a Mi’kmaq carver in the 1850’s fetched $2.2 million in 2006 at an auction. It was a Starr Manufacturing Company stick. The company employed many Mi’kmaq wood carvers until machinery took over and their jobs became obsolete. Sticks were carved out of hard wood, not heat-pressed like they are today. They were an international success and the origins of the hockey stick were forgotten until the auction that changed the perception that hockey is a recent invention. The oldest hockey stick (over 300 years old) sits in the Canadian Museum of History. It is literally carved out of the roots of Canada’s past.


Hockey is a graceful game. The physical skills needed to skate, handle a stick, pass the puck, and send a piece of “indian rubber” flying at 170km/hr…are all admirable goals and duly respected. The game should build character in young people.


The game, many times, has turned into an adversarial engagement.  The fights, head trauma and bullying both on the ice and in the stands are becoming normal. It doesn’t have to be that way. As Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, how can we bring back the good values and instill that old respect in our children and youth?

Simple. By reclaiming the game. Starting, of course, with history.

Back when the Mi’kmaq were playing Oochamkunutk, and the Mohawk were playing Lacrosse (now Canada’s two official sports,) they had particular purposes. They weren’t meant to beat your opponent but to shore up alliances, prepare young people for hunting, build strategizing skills.  Mi’kmaq storytellers relay to us the purpose of the game. Our Indigenous languages and stories hold the oral DNA of hockey history and reveal to us the proof of the existence of the game long before European Contact — which solidifies the logic that sports coupled with arts/culture and Indigenous Culture, is exciting and a necessity.

Judith Skating

Judith Beaver of Webequie plans to walk 1,000 kms to Ottawa.

Last spring, I wrote about the resilience of two Canadian Indigenous women, DAREarts Cultural Award winner Waneek Horn-Miller and Leadership Award recipient Judith Beaver. They both talked about how finding their passion saved them from despair due to trauma.  Waneek ran across Canada twice.  Judith, 16, plans to walk from Pickle Lake to Ottawa this summer. Both turned to arts and sports to build confidence in themselves and others. Both have dreams of better times for future generations.

With their inspiration plus that of the Webequie school and community plus DAREarts founder Marilyn Field powering our program, DAREarts is sending dancer/DAREarts Lead teacher Laura MacKinnon, Juno nominee and “Say My Name Kindness Campaign” Glenn Marais and me (Mi’kmaq multi-disciplined Dora nominated) to Webequie to collaborate with students, teachers and elders on a project that will “reclaim the game” by mixing hockey with photography/digital imaging and songwriting, visual art and dance.

With generous help from TD’s Musicounts, we will have guitars, recording equipment and lessons. Long & McQuade has once again donated a guitar to DAREarts for our fly-in programs. The NHL donated hockey jerseys. The Painted Turtle in Thunder Bay is helping us with art supplies and Stardust Events helped us source blank goalie masks for our visual art component.

At the end of an intense week, the 20 DAREarts Webequie youths with elders will perform their piece for the community and a video will be shared on social media to spread the message of anti-bullying and good sportsmanship.

None of this would be possible without DAREarts’ lead supporters Northbridge Insurance, Guy Carpenter, Scotiabank, TD, The Ontario Arts Council, the Judith Teller Foundation and Ann Livingston.  As well, DAREarts First Roots supporters of our northern program are Noront Resources and Sarah Haney.

We will have stories, images, music and inspiration from these kids and their community to share at our 2nd DAREarts First Roots Feast in Newmarket on February 25th which will fuel our trips for next year. Join us!

First Roots Feast Header

Related Links:

Article re: First Nations and Hockey

Origins of Hockey

The Girl and the Raven – a story about Hockey written and filmed by DAREarts Marten Falls Grade 7 students

DAREarts First Roots Feast 

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Is Canada finally ready to “Go in a Good Way?”

DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program Commentary – Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program Associate
Witness to Change Header

When Right Honourable Justin Trudeau said, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways…” we all let out our collective breath. Indigenous Canadians, charities, artists and scientists suddenly felt the lid of containment lifted. The past few months of 2015 have breathtakingly altered the socio-political landscape, especially for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples.

“Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate letter signals a new era of reconciliation where First Nations are securing their rightful place upon a legitimate nationhood platform as Indigenous governments – this is certainly a positive step forward for this country. Truly, we are adversaries no more!” – Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day

As we move into the season of reflection, renewal and hope, it’s good to remember how the past three months have demonstrated the power that people possess: to give, to listen, to change the things they didn’t want. We are now sorting through the information that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has dispensed and taking up the recommendations that will, in time, help rectify the mistakes of the past. Indeed, it will take time, “even generations.” At the TRC announcement, an emotional Prime Minister stated: “I am announcing that we will work with leaders of First Nations, Métis Nation, Inuit, provinces and territories, parties to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and other key partners, to design a national engagement strategy for developing and implementing a national reconciliation framework, informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.” See more at: Prime Minister’s Statement at the release of the TRC Final Report

All of the recommendations by the TRC will be implemented.

DAREarts Board Member and Atlantic / Labrador Regional Aboriginal First Nations (AFN) Chief Morley Googoo was present at the AFN Special Chief Assembly in Gatineau, Quebec. It was the first time a Prime Minister addressed an AFN National Assembly.

The education/opportunity gap will be closed. Presently, First Nations school children receive half the funding that the rest of Canada’s children receive. Trudeau announced that “[a] priority moving forward will be to make significant investments in First Nations education. We will deliver increased funding for First Nations education and we will work on education reforms for First Nations children that are led by First Nations.”

All funds that were seized by the previous government through the First Nations Transparency Act will be returned to First Nations, giving them the resources they need for infrastructure. Trudeau continued. “It is time for a new fiscal relationship with First Nations that gives these communities sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding.” See more at: Prime Minister of Canada’s Statement at the AFN Special Chief’s Assembly

Treaties will be re-addressed and Nation-to-Nation negotiations will resume. The past will be revealed in our schools, churches, town halls and media outlets. There will be no more room for racism in our classrooms and courtrooms.

There will, at last, be sunny ways. But not without weathering more hardship.

It’s great to have hope, but the reality is that things are still dire for our First Nations youth. The education/funding/opportunity gap will finally be closed, but it will take time. New schools will not suddenly sprout like fiddleheads next spring.

What are we doing? DAREarts is leading the way, and has been for two decades now. We’ve always been inclusive, we’ve always been consultative, we have always been learning, and we still are.

Some new partnerships will be working their way into the next year for DAREarts.

At the Rotary Club of Toronto’s meeting with the Assembly of First Nations, DAREarts (represented by Founder, Marilyn Field, Lead Teacher, Laura Mackinnon and DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program Associate, Cathy Elliott) witnessed a true willingness by all parties to start navigating this new landscape.  With more resources, sharing of information, funding and decolonizing of schools, we will inch our way towards the Canada we want to see.  A frank discussion about what needs to be done on both sides of the table followed the formal speeches.  Questions were asked about laying down bridges for business opportunities, education, infrastructure, the environment and decolonizing ourselves.

Augmenting DAREarts’ own efforts to answer the call for our programs, (we’re a small but mighty charitable organization with many Indigenous and like-minded artists who work with us across Canada) we have been conversing with other arts and education groups to ensure that there is a more effective way to share resources, employ local Indigenous artists, and empower the children.

The Rotary Clubs are looking for ways to connect us with their own HIP program (Honouring Indigenous Peoples), an earnest and robust effort to bring awareness to their own members and help organizations like DAREarts ignite positive change in children and their communities.

Over the past nine years, a lot of good groups have fallen away, due to lack of financial support, leaving a vacuum in communities with little means to take up the slack.   Now, artists and organizations such as Artbridges are pooling information and support.  Hopefully, in the future, we won’t have to compete with each other for resources.  But immediate measures are needed to reach the demand that exists NOW.

It’s good to remember that it is the kids who are going to keep this ball rolling. School children all over Canada are becoming aware of our checkered past.  School boards are altering their curriculum.  More and more FNMI children are self-identifying, becoming proud of their heritage, and more and more Canadians are becoming aware that we’re not all gone. The dream of a united nation based on the three founding parties—British, French and Indigenous Nations—just may be realized in our 150th year as Canada.


DAREarts is a children’s charity that uses the arts to empower youth at-risk to become leaders. Our lead supporters are Northbridge Insurance, Guy CarpenterScotiabank, and the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the government of Ontario.

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Stepping Sideways – Resiliency and the Learning Heart

ArtBridges is a hub of communications, support, and inspiration for community based arts groups and individuals. DAREarts just received a cherished award from ArtBridges for DAREarts Aboriginal First Roots program, which delivers arts education in collaboration with schools, artists and First Nations all over Canada.
2015 Artbridges Resiliency AwardThe “Resiliency Award” is very special to us, because it recognizes the challenges that not only we, but FNMI kids and their communities experience in remote areas, specifically First Nations fly-in only communities in the North.

We have a saying:  “If you can’t go forward, step sideways,” which is something that our kids and their parents know intimately.  This is an ingenious way to solve problems.  Sometimes, things just don’t go the way they were planned.  So.  We improvise.  As artists working in their communities, we have learned from the best: the artists we work with, the young people and the Elders.

The challenges can be deceptively simple or devastatingly complicated. I’ve seen a snowfall or drop in temperature kybosh three days of artistic development – or a plane that won’t land, or, sadly, a funeral of a loved one turn a week into days of re-planning, re-scheduling, re-thinking.  My own mother’s death on Valentine’s Day put a huge amount of pressure on the two other artists who were working in Marten Falls FN. They had to press on and make the final presentation day happen without my help (I was flown home for Mom’s funeral) Funerals in the communities often make us step sideways.  Out of respect, all activities stop until we can start up again. The young people are prime examples of resiliency. They work with us to make their final work of art happen. That’s the Discipline part of our values.

The artists we thank are Genevieve Anthony, Francois & Jennifer Aubrey, Linda Carson, John Cowling, Peter Elliott, Waawaate Fobister, Glenn Marais, Laura MacKinnon, Zoee Maxwell, D’Arcy Moses, Lee Pham, Jeremy Proulx, Julian Sale, Tanya Senk…They all stepped sideways when needed.

The community teachers who contributed their talents and advice and let us disrupt their schedules are heroes to us. They carried on the arts and values after we left.

Last but not least: local community artists, musicians, painters, beaders, drummers, – you are our foundation.  This award is for you, too.

photo 4

Left to Right: Seanna Connell, Artbridges; Cathy Elliott, DAREarts Aboriginal First Roots; Marilyn Field, DAREarts Founder & President

Stepping sideways is a way to step forward. It’s a way of going around obstacles and building resilience. It teaches us that there are many ways to teach…and learn. One step at a time. Never stopping.

Miigwetch, Wela’lin, Mahsi Cho, Quyanaini…there are not enough words for thank you.

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The Way Forward: The TRC Report and DAREarts

The Way Forward title

By now, there are thousands of voices raised in shock, dismay, embarrassment, denial and empathy in regard to the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the past Residential School System in Canada. I am raising three excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Report Summary:

1) “Sports, cultural activities were underfunded. They were also often intended to encourage assimilation. In 1967, the students attending the Shingwauk, Ontario, school put on a four-act play called Arrow to the Moon. One act used a dialogue between an Elder and a young man to contrast what were seen as the old and new ways open to Aboriginal people. Billy Diamond played the role of the young man, who concludes at the scene’s end, “The new ways show a way to work and live but the old ways have shown us how to die.” The performance was filmed and shown to the James Bay Cree, who refrained from making any public comment, but were shocked to discover the degree to which their children were being manipulated.”

2) “The legacy of the schools remains. One can see the impact of a system that disrupted families in the high number of Aboriginal children who have been removed from their families by child-welfare agencies. An educational system that degraded Aboriginal culture and subjected students to humiliating discipline must bear a portion of responsibility for the current gap between the educational success of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. The health of generations of Aboriginal children was undermined by inadequate diets, poor sanitation, overcrowded conditions, and a failure to address the tuberculosis crisis that was ravaging the country’s Aboriginal community. There should be little wonder that Aboriginal health status remains far below that of the general population. The over-incarceration and over-victimization of Aboriginal people also have links to a system that subjected Aboriginal children to punitive discipline and exposed them to physical and sexual abuse.”

3) “The policy of colonization suppressed Aboriginal culture and languages, disrupted Aboriginal government, destroyed Aboriginal economies, and confined Aboriginal people to marginal and often unproductive land. When that policy resulted in hunger, disease and poverty, the federal government failed to meet its obligations to Aboriginal people. That policy was dedicated to eliminating Aboriginal peoples as distinct political and cultural entities and must be described for what it was: a policy of cultural genocide.”

Residential School Survivors and their families follow children away from Rideau Hall to symbolize that children will lead us to a future of reconciliation.

Residential School Survivors and their families follow children away from Rideau Hall to symbolize that children will lead us to a future of reconciliation.

Now that we have all this information, what are we supposed to do with it? I had an emotional couple of days in Ottawa, representing DAREarts First Roots program and the memory of my Grandfather and other family members who went through the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. The very first thing I saw was a parade of school children, all races, and some of them in Traditional Regalia, walking with hearts bearing messages of love and support and remembrance for the thousands of children who went to the schools, 6,000 of whom never made it home.

Children from the Ottawa area made hearts for reconciliation.

Children from the Ottawa area made hearts for reconciliation.

The number of confirmed dead floored me.  Six thousand kids in about a century either died in bed at the school or in hospital if they were deemed sick enough to be sent, or on the trail as they attempted to go back to their families.

My grandfather ran away but the school and its horrors followed him. It seeped its way into his family life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. Its poison lives with us, and, as we learn more of what he went through, the poison rises and falls like mercury in our own veins.

Unexplained anger and pain. Alcoholic binging. Domestic violence. We now have a term for it: intergenerational trauma.  It’s hard to describe the loss of trust, love, and security my mother must have felt growing up with a broken father who died too young.

Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots, presented a Feather made by a child from Broadacres PS with a message to FNMI children today: "I wish you could have what I have." - Grade 5 student

Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots, presented a Feather made by a child from Broadacres PS with a message to FNMI children today: “I wish you could have what I have.” – Grade 5 student

These things aren’t easy things to say publicly. But I consider what other families are going through now, especially the ones who have parents who were in those prisons: the stories of forced labour, the sexual abuse, the robbery of dignity and the right to be human, the removal of culture and language and forced separation from family members.

Imagine the devastating revelations for children of Survivors who now know the full extent of what can no longer be ignored.  How do we all assemble this information into something useful?  How do we build upon this scorched ground?

In 2007, when I joined the DAREarts team to help develop a specifically FNMI approach to education using the arts, I understood immediately what forces were at play in underfunded communities in northern Ontario.  It was abundantly clear that in some cases – not all – the expectancy for excellence was lower for Aboriginal children than everybody else.  In most cases, the schools were inadequate, cold, and understaffed.  The turn-around of teachers and principals was ridiculously high. It was heartbreaking. There were very few positive relationships outside of the children’s own homes and, in some cases, not even there.

The school in Webequie was DAREarts First Roots’ first collaboration. There was a high drop-out rate. The students were disengaged. There was rampant bullying. The youth were killing themselves.

Their parents and grandparents had been in the Residential Schools in Moosonee and others, depending on whether they were taken by Anglican or Catholic clergy, splitting communities as well as families.  As generations were put through the cultural grinder, they lost more and more of themselves and gained very little. They were separated from family, starved, beaten for speaking their language, molested, de-humanized.  Because they had no modelling, parenting or love from the people they were supposed to trust, they took behavioural problems back to their communities.

D'arcy Moses, Dene fashion designer, works with Webequie highschool students on making moccasins with a contemporary twist.

D’arcy Moses, Dene fashion designer, works with Webequie highschool students on making moccasins with a contemporary twist.

As we worked with the children, we were approached by these residential school Survivors who told us their stories. They shared their hearts with us and we celebrated their kids’ accomplishments together. It was through working with them that we were all able to come up with a program that works.  Empowers. Expects nothing less than excellence from these exceptional children.

We have a few recommendations of our own in regards to the way forward for Canada’s children.

Include the traditional arts and culture of our country’s first people in the curricula of mainstream schools, taught by Indigenous elders, artists and teachers.

Bridge FNMI and Non-Indigenous kids through the arts.

1) Correct the prevalent misconceptions by sharing storytelling, songs, essays and plays by FNMI kids with non-Indigenous kids.  Distribute this material either at no cost or arrange for the schools to donate funds to support programs like DAREarts that produce these inroads to understanding.

2) DAREarts has been working with non-Indigenous kids creating artworks that become messages of love and support for FNMI kids. Along with the art, comes traditional teachings and a short history lesson. Prior to our visit, their teachers prepare them regarding the residential school history and the inter-generational trauma caused by it. Often, a child in these classes will self-identify as FNMI for the first time, finding the courage to speak up about his or her heritage in a safe environment of inclusion.

3) Send urban FNMI kids to visit reserves to give them a sense of what the Indian Act is all about. Reconnect them to their cultural roots as they live for a little while with on-reserve kids and Elders.  As they create art, dance, music, and films together, they can take pride in themselves and communicate together in contemporary and traditional ways.

4) Help arts-education empowerment organizations like DAREarts who have been struggling to practice these disciplines with limited funds and support. We have learned some answers over two decades but we need your help to meet the demand and invitations from communities.  Come to us for our knowledge and experience. Read our blog from tip to tail. See the outcomes for yourself. Together let’s ignite change.

DAREarts has been working with Elders, teachers and children both on and off reservation to bridge FNMI children with non-Indigenous children through cultural literacy and the arts.

DAREarts has been working with Elders, teachers and children both on and off reservation to bridge FNMI children with non-Indigenous children through cultural literacy and the arts.