DAREarts Blog

Discipline, Action, Responsibility, Excellence


DAREarts in Attawapiskat: “Our Stories are a Part of Us”

In June 2017, DAREarts returned to Attawapiskat FN for a week of empowering workshops that helped many youth discover their voices and inner leadership. DAREarts workshops are facilitated by DAREarts artist-educators in partnership with the community.

The first of our team to arrive in Attawapiskat FN was DAREarts artist-educator and cinematographer Peter Elliott, who met with the grade 7s of Kattawapiskak Elementary School on Friday to introduce them to DAREarts and the art of filmmaking. The class watched several short films created by other DAREarts First Nations youth. Peter then dared the class to take a big risk without being afraid of failure: they were going to create their own short film in just ONE day! In groups, the class ventured out onto the school grounds armed with cameras and creativity, capturing a variety of different angles and shots. Peter then used this footage, along with stock footage of an alligator, to bring their hilarious creation to life as “Attawapigator”. When they saw their video it was a raging success, and they asked for an encore viewing. Despite many of the students being quiet and shy, they were now ready to take on more DAREarts!

DAREarts Lead Teacher Laura MacKinnon, DAREarts artist-educator and musician Glenn Marais, and ArtBridges’ Seanna Connell arrived over the weekend to join Peter. The team met the grade 9 class at Vezina Secondary School on Monday morning, and after a creative introduction the class welcomed knowledge keeper John Matthews. He captivated the students with a story of the first clan, the Bear Clan, offering the youths inspiration for the week ahead. In the afternoon the team met the grade 12 class and repeated their introductions, and John Matthews returned to share the story with them as well. Both classes were invited to work with the team in the evenings throughout the week. The first evening had a small turnout, but was massively productive! Colin arrived first, spending the evening making beats on the keyboard with Glenn, brainstorming lyrics with Laura, and learning to use the video camera with Peter. Tyler then arrived, making a beeline for Glenn who worked with him to compose a whole melody on the keyboard. Chandler and Jamie were the last to arrive, working with Laura and Seanna to capture footage and write the film’s plot.

Tuesday was fast-paced, with the class formed into two groups: the Musicians and the Film Crew. The musicians worked with Glenn and Laura on the verses for their song and created music for their short film, while the film crew started casting and shooting their first scene with Peter and Seanna. A few of the youths were hanging back, but they took action when given the roles of assistant director, set photographer, and editor. In the evening, youths Keenan, Colin, and Jack Jr. (who is also a DAREarts Leadership Award recipient) arrived right away. Keenan worked with Glenn and Jack Jr. to record two rap verses he had written during the day, and Colin was joined by another arriving youth, Chandler, to go out and film using the shot list.

On Wednesday, another group was created: Visual Artists! Throughout the day, the musicians finished writing the chorus of their song and prepared introductory music for the film score. One youth, Ambrose, skillfully layered different notes and sounds to add the finishing touches to the chorus. The film crew worked on several group shot scenes in the teepee frame near the school, with youth Jade working as our set photographer. The visual artists created chalk pastel drawings of bears that were integrated into the film using green screen. In the evening, several youths met to record parts of the song, and Jack Jr. offered to narrate the film. Colin acted as audio engineer, Syvanna sang the chorus, Jack Jr. sang and recorded a traditional hand drum song, and Tyler rapped to add a powerful end to the track.

Thursday was a special Culture Days celebration at the school, so our team spent the day preparing the materials the youths had created. On Friday afternoon, everyone was welcomed to a special feast at the school that celebrated both the traditional Culture Days activities and the youths’ accomplishments with DAREarts. The feast began with a prayer and then everyone ate, enjoying many local delights. Once finished, they squeezed into teacher Mandy Alves’s classroom to screen the youths’ film, “Bear Clan”, and a slideshow music video created using their song and photography. There was laughter and joy all around! The students and audience squished together for a group photo before saying their goodbyes for the night.  It was the perfect end to a very special week, and the youths were so proud to bring smiles to the faces of their elders, teachers, families, and community members.

To read artist-educator Glenn Marais’s reflection, click here.

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


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Guest Post: DAREarts Attawapiskat 2017 Reflection by Glenn Marais

Written by DAREarts artist-educator Glenn Marais.

DAREarts came to the community of Attawapiskat to hear a story about the original Bear Clan from a knowledge keeper, John Matthews, and to take that story and create a film, visual art, a song and a slideshow of pictures to accompany the music. We worked for three days, two seventy five minute periods, with the high school students on a very condensed schedule, including two evenings and one day after school.  What happened was incredible as the students and teachers came together and worked in the spirit of true partnership to create a stunning and moving cinematic interpretation of the story, with original music created by them and a powerful and moving song that expressed the story of their lives and their love of the land.

The sun sets late in Attawapiskat. At 10:00 O’clock it starts to go down and the night sky comes out, crystal clear constellations arcing across the stratosphere, a sailor’s map, starry legends over a world that sleeps but does not rest.  It rises early, breaking the horizon with a brilliant northern radiance illuminating the dusty streets and weathered roofs of the reserve.  The homes are falling apart after the tyranny of the long, cold winter and the morning sounds of rumbling trucks and nails being driven, blend into the chaotic orchestra of a community waking and beginning to move through the day. Its sounds are just like any other town or community coming to life with the promise of the morning. Only here, it is less about promise than survival. There is a magnificent white Catholic church, tall and majestic by the water with stained glass windows that tell the history of the people and whispers of apologies for past wrongs.  Truths have yet to come and apologies given for Residential schools and that is part of the healing that must happen. It is part of a history long buried, that has been disturbed, opened and left like a forgotten graveyard.

Today’s youth live within the reality of the schools ignoble past.  In the shadow of their parents haunted memories, they struggle to burst free and find the glorious sun that shines so long in the summer and hibernates in the winter. Yesterday, one of the high school students walked and talked with us and her words were true, direct and honest, filled with a piercing, unabated intelligence that captivated and charmed us and as she ascended the wooden stairs that are ubiquitous in this community, slowly opening the door to her home that rested in a state of decay, my heart broke for her and I felt ashamed because my feelings seem powerless to help her.

The name reserve fails to describe the pulsing heart of this community.  What a shallow name for a community of people.  We name things in this world for convenience of categorization and to displace the fact that we have committed wrongs. A dressed up wound still bleeds despite our arrogant nature and human nature is arrogant, particularly when it vaunts it’s self as civilized and tromps over anything that doesn’t fit inside it’s neat, tight lineage. The reserve isn’t a dumping ground for an inconvenient culture.  It is a living breathing community that celebrates and mourns, dances and shuffles, sings and cries like any other.  When you fly into a northern community, the sheer beauty of it is staggering.  Hundreds of pristine lakes and rivers dot the landscape of silty islands, whose fish laden waters and abundant wildlife enrich the land. The land is the mother and the connection runs deep, through memories, and stories of creation, and growth with 44 clans coming from the original clan bear clan.  An ancient system of identification and relationship to the animal world that kept the bloodlines as pure as the waters that surround this island community.  The name Attawapiskat means, “People of the parting of the rocks” and it is an island of many created by the surge of the mighty Attawapiskat river, where the people live in harmony with great respect for nature and the balance of life.

This land is much more than its surface appearance of dirt, dusty roads and broken homes. It has the pulse of the Earth mother and connects the people in ways we can’t begin to imagine. We look at land as possession, here it is the heartbeat of a world that is interdependent, with everything flowing and weaving in and out of a glorious kaleidoscopic tapestry that bedazzles the eyes and stirs the soul. It is the sound of a motorboat powering a launch into the rising sun, the crack of a rifle across a winter plain, bringing home food to a family during the cold winter season, and it is the cry of the pow wow singer whose voice is the sound of the elders echoing through the universe. What great spirit inhabits this land and what wonders await if we can learn to walk in humble shoes and beside our First Nations people.

I have heard people say we should remove them from the reserve and integrate them into society as if the “them” in this conversation are inanimate beings that we can move on some self-righteous chessboard. What about a question? How can we work with you to make things better for you? Where can we begin and sit down with you as brothers and sisters in a circle and come to an understanding and a reckoning of our true history, so that we can move forward together, like the two rows on the Iroquois Wampum belt, in a peaceful union? I don’t dream of such things, I speak of them and when I play my guitar and sing and drum, I sing to the heavens, the Earth, my family and my promise, to never stop until things change.  For now, I walk these dusty roads with my eyes, ears and heart open and look always forward to the sun, moon and stars, just like the words in the song that we wrote together:

“We are the sun, moon and stars, we are the trees
All around us, is everything we need
Everything we need is all around”

We live in an abundant world, made shallow by greed, and in this great land of broken promise and faded dreams are the glittering embers of a glorious past that knew, everything we needed was around us and not to take more than we needed. I heard a story on this trip from a noble young man of great character from Attawapiskat, who told us of being pursued by a wolf, when his skidoo broke down.  He told us how he shot around the wolf to scare him off and kept doing this even as the wolf closed in on him.  A man of lesser character would have killed the wolf.  He did not. This is the character of a man cast in iron and made of blood and bone who taught me so much with the simple power of his story.  Our life is meant to be lived in the teachings, with humility and wisdom with respect for ourselves and the world, with courage in the face of danger, so that we will lead with love and honesty, and in that way come to know our truth. To know the teachings of the grandfathers is easy, to live them is hard. Thank you my young friend for a life well lived and lessons well taught.

To read an overview of DAREarts’ week in Attawapiskat, click here.

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

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“You’re Gonna Save the World.”

From the desk of Cathy Elliott, DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Communications and Program Associate

Emily(2) - Igloolik - Age 16

Card by Emily, 16 – Igloolik, Nunavut

You’re gonna save the world. I’ve said those words to countless kids over the past seven years, in classrooms, stages, talking circles, pow wow grounds and gyms.

No one ever said that to me as a kid.

Sure, I knew I had a responsibility to take care of my little piece of the planet. I was the product of a generation of hippies telling me to not use aerosols and DDT. To turn off the light and not waste water. To put my trash in the garbage and not out the car window. (cue tear coursing down generic Indigenous Chief’s cheek) Now, as I place this mantel of care on the shoulders of young people, I wonder: do I have that right? How dare I?

The kids are already painfully aware that they live in a violent, beautiful, confounding world. What, they’re going to have to save it, too?

For FNMI youth, there is a double responsibility. They have their Chiefs as well as their parents telling them to heal their families and communities. They are being designated as Keepers of the Future.

parents see the work

Pop-up scenes for the film “The Land Speaks” by the youth of Marten Falls, FN during the Sharing of their work at the end of a DAREarts First Roots workshop.

They are already being charged with the responsibility of saving their cultures, languages and sovereignty. Now they’re going to save the world from destruction through greed, misguided “truths”, environmental defilement and ultimately, the End of Times.

I exaggerate, of course. Most of them are trying to save their little piece of the planet. Most of them are up to the challenge. But some of them are ill equipped to do so. How can we help them? What is our responsibility as artists and educators? Parents? Leaders?

I’ve heard the phrase, “cultural literacy” thrown around. It’s a good phrase. It makes sense to preserve and promote Turtle Island’s Indigenous cultural literacy not only with FNMI kids, but with all Canadians.

When we step into a classroom full of a mixture of FNMI and non, it’s a fantastic feeling. Because together, we decolonize everyone in the class, including the teachers. The experience of seeing a kid hold up his hand and saying, “I’m not Italian, I’m Anishnabek,” after the class hears a lesson about Canada’s history, is breathtaking. Seeing the other kids and teachers look at him in a new and respectful way is heartbreaking. How long has that kid been hiding in the shadows?

Two Creators

Dreamcatcher inspired works of art infused with 7 Teachings and Aboriginal history help the kids from Broadacres Public School contextualize the Dreamcatcher and FNMI world views.

Bring that cultural literacy into the conversation about art, and you have all sorts of possibilities. Some think that sharing that kind of knowledge is dangerous; it dilutes the potency of the information being passed. Some think that the sharing of cultural knowledge is a good thing – it promotes understanding and eradicates fear, or “othering” of FNMI students. I’m confident that by placing that mantel of responsibility on our kids, all of our kids, we’re going to help create a better world for them. But we better back up that action with help.

With a little guidance, and a lot of encouragement, we can co-create wonderful works of art that illuminate the richness of our FNMI cultures and Canada’s history. When DAREarts was invited to show our First Roots kids’ artworks, at the Chiefs of Ontario’s “Honouring Our Leaders” Gala, we proudly displayed the paintings, crafts from Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations and cards from kids across Canada, reminding the Chiefs and other leaders that the future is indeed bright. Chief after Chief stood up and declared that they are confident that those young leaders need our support.

They will be guiding us into an enlightened world. But they need the tools to do so. DAREarts First Roots (www.darearts.com) has understood from the beginning that a cultural link to children’s development and wellness is critical. Self-identity is expressed in positive and negative ways. We explore the positive. We remember that our Elders taught us how to think on our feet.

We remember that we have Knowledge Keepers who must be honoured and invited to engaged with our children. We know that by ensuring that if all Canadians understand our collective and individual histories, culture and teachings, we can create a good place to live. It’s not just building bridges, it’s recognizing that those bridges already exist, and learning how to strengthen them.

We are heartened to see mainstream schools recognizing the contributions and sacrifices our parents, grandparents and ancestors made for Canada. And that cultural literacy, through the arts, will help our kids guide us into the future.

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Attawiskat Spring – posts from another place, another time

This is a backgrounder of Cathy Elliott’s workshop with students in Attawapiskat two years ago, when she wrote six songs in four days with them. It was spring – exactly the same time slot as this coming year’s trip. She’ll we working with Peter Elliott and the students on creating a music video of one of those songs. What changes will we see when we go back up on March 18th, 2014?

Attawapiskat Spring, 2012 – Cathy Elliott for DAREarts

Water, Fire, Fish and Geese
Oh, and just hanging with my friends…

Attawapiskat Student in focus sm
The stuff that these kids threw out at me is made up of what kids everywhere want and enjoy in their young lives.  A good joke, watching tv together, video games and music.  One of the kids introduced me to a song by BoB, “Ghost in the Machine”, thereby sending me down another rabbit hole of information and esoteric ruminations.  But they also have a very different experience from kids in the south.  Their relationship to the land is profound.  They have a real sense of who they are and where they belong.  I know, we all realise that watching tv and playing video games and facebooking and blogging are affecting our kids.  It’s not a new concept.  But it is nowhere more discernible than when you come to a place so isolated as this.  I learned so much from them this week.  A sampling of the themes these kids came up with:

The Cycle of the Year and Water
The Goose Hunt Argument
Agamiski Island Picnic
Muskego Land Fishing Song

Miss Corrina and Student

It was really interesting, going through all the words, thoughts, impressions, imagery and just plain kid world fun and distilling it all down to works of art.  The parents who came on the insistence of their children got a big surprise.  Six new songs.  All very different from each other.  All touching, funny, daring just like the kids.  I got to know Attawapiskat from a very personal viewpoint and a world view that was shared freely.

The grade six students will be the first class to graduate in the new school.  My hope, and I’m sure you hope, and the people in Attawapiskat and folks all over NDN country, that more and more kids graduate.  There will be a surge of young Aboriginal people out there, ready to work and improve their home towns.  To put in to the economy of this continent.  If, in my life time, I see a country that can sustain two distinct realities, two nations, I will see a miracle.  But, as I watch something come from nothing, I witness miracles.  Maybe this is one I’ll see.  Just sayin’.

If you visualise it, it might happen.  The tv in my room is like a magic mirror.  Channel 20. The blueprints of the school are there, waiting for the miracle to happen.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to see before I came here.  At the beginning of this blog series, I hoped that I would see a better picture than the ones I saw in the news. The town of Attawapiskat made a decision last fall to tell the world that they were in peril of a terribly deadly winter, to the detriment of their community’s image.  Chief Spence had a hard winter. When she put out the SOS she knew she was in for a cold reception.  I don’t think she was prepared for the good wishes and prayers her community got from sympathetic people around the world.

Spoke briefly with Rodrique Vezina outside the White Wolf about the weather, the Mi’kmaq People and our Cree Relations, music and language and the length of days.  He invited me to Saturday morning mass, but I think I’ll be catching a plane.  He said to come play my guitar and sing.  It isn’t a far walk.  I just might.  See thing is, there’s a mix of Christianity and Traditional going on here.  Been that way for a while.  He’s well respected because he honours both and dovetails the two.

The church itself is a beautiful structure.  Reminds me of Quebec steeples.  Quite ornate.  It rests down by the river, the doors facing the river, away from the town.  A statue of Mary, her face whiter than the rotting snow, holds her arms out to the Community.  Such a loving gesture.  Such a tortured  history.
A few hours ago I was in the communal kitchen eating my dinner when Lawrence Martin came in and joined me.  We got to talking about music and both pulled out our Macs and listened to each other’s music.  He started telling me about concerts with Tom Jackson and Kashtin and Susan Aglukark and I realized I was jabbin’ with a Canadian Legend!  Quick- Wikipedia: Not only is he the first Aboriginal Album of the Year winner, he was mayor of Sioux Lookout (I knew I really liked that place for a good reason) the first Aboriginal mayor of a municipality that wasn’t a Rez.  He’s currently the Mayor of Cochran?!   I’m such a dope.  I need an education about the fantastic Aboriginal people in this country. (Glad to know you, Lawrence. Hope to meet you again!)
-from Attawapiskat Spring, Cathy’s personal blog, “Because Art Is”
Come back for more on THIS YEAR’s trip to Attawapiskat, the new school, the song and the video the DAREarts Team will create along with community members and of course, the grade 8’s who were in grade six the last time. The song can be found here “Muskego Land”.
Wish us luck! We’re flying with the Niska (Canada Goose) – again! (thanks to the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.)
ontario logo

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Good Glue

The Land Speaks cover sm

The Land Speaks through DAREarts Aboriginal Students


Welcome to the Ogoki Inn. DAREarts team Jeremy Proulx, Laura MacKinnon, Lee Pham and I (Cathy Elliott) have arrived. No internet. I’ll have to put this up on the blog when I get back to Toronto. The tv is controlled by a contractor who has his own satellite receiver and whatever he watches, we watch. You have to negotiate with other hotel residents for one of the two bathrooms and it’s wise to bring your own toilet paper. I ended up on a mattress next to the freezer in the basement one night a couple of years ago. It’s over crowded, there’s no privacy and noisy.

Which is normal for so many of our students in these tiny, remote communities.

Tuesday:Laura and Ogoki students

There’s a new Principal and two new young teachers. Every time this happens, the kids slide in attendance a bit. The classes are small, but the kids who are in class still know what the DAREarts values are from our last visit in February. We get right down to business because there isn’t much time in the day allotted to our project.  We have an after school session and the kids continue to work on their illustrations.  Our project this week is a continuation of a story and poem the kids wrote last February, around Valentine’s Day. The kids will record the poem and vocal sound effects, which will be looped to make the sound track for their film.  The message is an environmental one, with a cautionary note. Don’t mess with Mother Earth.


Trees Muskeg Heartbeat

I had a chance to catch my breath while waiting for the truck that would take me back to the Ogoki airport. I got a call that our stuff that had been held in Webequie had arrived. I’d been living in the same clothes for two days. We had to leave most of our stuff in Webequie, allowed only to bring frozen food and medication and maybe a toothbrush. Everything has to be weighted and arranged in the plane for safety. Have you ever seen the tv show Arctic Air? One briefcase shifts and the plane goes down.

In Ogoki, you can hear your groceries arrive.  The airplanes buzz overhead and you can pretty well tell what time it is by that, if the weather’s good.

If the weather’s bad, you might not get your groceries, because the plane won’t land.

If you get sick, really sick, your life could depend on that plane.

Flight to Ogoki

I found out I had an ear infection, complete with sore throat, stuffed sinuses and fever. I was afraid that I had the strep throat that had been going around in Webequie. (Laura was down with it for three days with a raging fever and nausea.) The nurse gave me antibiotics and Tylenol and assured me I wasn’t contagious.  Then, day four I was in the school, and a different nurse pulled me into the staff room and rolled up my shirtsleeve. “Here, sign this.” I got my flu shot so fast I didn’t know it happened until I felt “just a mosquito bite.” Now, I’m recovering from two days of fever and a headache from the shot…or the infection… but hey. Instead of waiting in a line the shot came to me. And I still got to work!

moose antlers


There will be people from this house leaving on the plane, freeing up space. They’re busying themselves with packing, making plans for their time back home.  Nurses, negotiators, prospectors, educators, contractors… Some of them fit in really well.  They get involved with the community, make friends, go fishing, hunting…Some, not so much. They come up to northern communities like this, work hard all day, make money, go home for a few weeks and then come back. “The bad part of going home is knowing you’re coming back.”


machine and skeleton

Splash in the Water

The kids are making good progress with their pop-ups. They’re funny, ingenious, beautiful.  They have moving parts that make the teachers laugh out loud. My favorite is the “diamond cutter” machine that has a little man which is replaced by a skeleton. The ground is made of a piece of packing material that looks just like mounds of dirt.


The students hear some of the tracks made from their recording and they continue to read the lines. I edit the soundscapes and the children’s hauntingly beautiful Ojibwe accents echo in my dreams. Jeremy guides them through the filming process, using flashlights for special effects.  The result is a darkly whimsical portrayal of the Land as a living being under stress. Their movie, “The Land Speaks” will be presented to their community at the end of the week. We told them to take ownership of what they had done. This will always be theirs. When their movie is on YouTube, they should know that the world will see it. Their families will see it. Their friends will be inspired by what they’ve done.

One of the boys said, flatly, “No friends. Only cousins.”


Ogoki dog

On the way to the school show and feast, I saw a white dog that looks like mine, nestled in the long grass in front of his house. Next to him was a carcass. A fairly large mammal. I’m guessing another dog? Small caribou? Really big beaver? I took a picture and stepped closer, cautiously approaching the dog, explaining that I was just going to get…he rolled over and exposed his belly.  I reached down and rubbed his nose. He looked me in the eye and I walked away, happy to have felt dog fur under my fingers.

poster in school door e

parents see the work

“The Land Speaks” was presented and celebrated by the community at the school. Around thirty people came to see the film and meet us. We had pot-luck moose stew and bannock and rice that was made by community volunteers. They munched while we played the movie over and over because it was only around four minutes long. We also played older movies that had been done in previous years, featuring these kids’ older siblings and cousins.

Moose crashing through the woods

Branches breaking, Rivers snaking

Rain and rabbits marten snares and Owls eat snakes from branches

Wolves howling in the woods. Water and roots under the surface of

Trees, muskeg, heartbeat

Muskeg Heartbeat, muskeg heartbeat,

It’s rocky underneath

Can bedrock break? Can it be broken? Can they break it with the diamond pick-axes?

Splash in the water

Sturgeon, pickerel, trout, pike, Beavers and geese

That mouse is jumping

Rabbit fox jumping

Birds chirping

Eagle watching, Thunder and lightning

That mouse is jumping in the grey wolf’s mouth

Strangers in our own land

Birds Chirping

Last night, the rez dogs started up barking and howling around eight o’clock. Then, suddenly they stopped. I walked out to the road to see if I could pick up a free wi-fi signal.  I did, just enough to download some emails on my iPhone. I stood there, in the pitch dark, in the middle of the road. No worries of traffic. Then I heard a low, long growl to my left.  I used my phone as a flashlight and calmly walked back to the hotel. There have been wolves wandering right into town here.  More than likely it was that cute dog I chucked under the chin earlier.

Laura, Lee, Jeremy and I had ice tea and snacks with a teacher and the two nurses in the residence next door to this hotel.) They talked about their experiences here, their women’s circle, the fire pit at the back of the residence. They talked about the other northern communities they’d worked in, how fortunate they were to be practitioners with good pay. They really feel for the teachers up here. No union, about half the pay that teachers down south get, and no idea what they were getting themselves into.

The winter is closing in on the north. The conversation rolls around to loneliness. Isolation.  Boredom. The expense of going south to visit families. The fear of failure. The lack of support and resources.  The education system here gets about half of what kids in non-Aboriginal communities receive. Teachers last maybe a term, maybe a year.  A councilor told us that one year, a kindergarten teacher looked at forty little kids who were jumping around and caught the plane out the next day. Some teachers go home for Christmas and just don’t come back. Don’t even give notice.  They just…disappear.

Teacher and DAREarts

Can we blame them for being unprepared for life on the rez? Some may say they should know better. They should know that these communities are isolated for most of the year, with maybe an ice road for part of the time in the winter. That everything is at least a day away. But they often don’t.  They’re told things like, “Oh, there are five stores in Ogoki.”  They picture a Sobey’s, a Walmart, a Shopper’s, and maybe a KFC or even a Dollar Store. They don’t come up with food. Or proper winter clothes. And they find out the “store” is maybe a shed with some chips and another one has milk. And the milk is seven bucks a quart. And that a loaf of bread is five dollars.  The water isn’t safe to drink, so they have to drink and brush their teeth with bottled water. They can’t grasp the culture. They realize they’re foreigners. Any noble thought of making a difference goes out the window.

Which means that the kids have no continuity.  No healthy relationship with anyone other than their families. No consistent proof that there are people from outside their community who believe in them. They leave their home to finish high school elsewhere, likely Thunder Bay or Geralton. Imagine a kid, age fifteen, little prepared for life in a place like Thunder Bay, living with a stranger. The other part of this dividing up of families is the lack of continuity for younger siblings at home. No big brother or sister to look up to. No slightly older family mentor. The fracturing of families continues, a generation after the residential schools have closed.

But there are the ones who stay. One teacher, Cindy, has been here for five years.  She was going to come for a year as an Education Assistant and ended up filling in and teaching the grade eights. Even stepped in as Principal a couple of times. She thinks, well maybe this is my last year. She goes south for the summer. Then she packs her bags and returns. She gets involved in the community.  She introduces herself to people. She organizes walks to the airport and back for the teachers and anyone who wants to walk with her. She talks with a twinkle in her eye about the students who give her things at the end of the year. They say to her, “You’re always giving us stuff.” So one of them gave her a rabbit snare. And she’s absolutely thrilled.  How many teachers do you know get a gift like that?

One of the nurses said, “Hey. Why don’t you guys down south start up a “Love a Northern Teacher” campaign? Send them some cookies. Some cards of support. Maybe they’d stay longer.” Certainly something to consider. File this thought under great ideas, talk to the school board down here and start something.

I think, maybe Canada should give our Northern Teachers some support. Give these schools more money for books and training and technology so that our Aboriginal kids can have a chance when they leave their communities. Maybe Canada should think of Indigenous kids as their own, instead of someone who’s tuck away in never never land until that land reveals something of monetary value.

Good Glue

I’m on the plane. I’m reflecting on the kids in general in places like Ogoki Post. The little kids are so open. They ask questions. “Have you ever drove a four-wheeler?” They walk with you, and tell you their life stories. How their friend drowned in the river. How their dog got hit by a skidoo. (We had a dead puppy in a cardboard box on our front stoop a few years ago. Linda Carson, teacher extraordinaire, explained she didn’t want them to just throw it in the dump. She wanted to give it a proper farewell. Good thing it was winter. That box sat on the front stoop for four days until Linda got the chance to lay it out with some cedar and tobacco and a little good-bye in the woods.) The older kids, with a few exceptions, are shyer. They blurt things and when you ask them to repeat themselves, they reply with “Just kidding.” As if they don’t believe anyone like us would have an interest in what they are saying. They have so much to say. It’s when, at age fifteen (remember?), they’re expected to up and go to Thunder Bay to attend high school that they really have a challenge to be heard.  They need more support to believe they have the right to share an opinion.

When DAREarts came here five years ago, the kids were really…angry. I mean, throw your chair in the corner angry. Swear in your face, hoodie up, ear-buds in, eyes to the floor angry. Grade seven and eight kids. Their teachers, fresh off the twin engine, were ashen. We had an opening circle and told them about ourselves, what our expectations were for the work, and how much fun could be had if they committed to the project.  Writing a song. A story. Building puppets. Taking pictures. They looked at us like we had pickerel fins for ears. “This is stupid!” We waited patiently for the calm.  It came. It always comes. That moment when a kid who doesn’t want to look uncool gets interested. Engaged. Then busy. The calm comes and goes. The pleas for respect can’t mean anything unless we show our respect for each other and them as human beings. Sometimes, in the middle of a great moment, an explosion happens. Then our team’s concerted effort to appeal to their sense of community is rewarded when they calm down again. That was the first year.

DAREarts goes to Ogoki DAY 2

This past year, my mother fell ill in New Brunswick. The usual lack of reliable communication made a horrible situation worse.  I tried to soldier on, keep up the good work, but my courage started to flag on the third day of our workshop. When the calm slipped away and the kids started ramping up to a feverish pitch, I had no recourse but to…sing.

It started under my breath and the song got louder. The kids stopped in their tracks and stared at me.  Again with the pickerel. “What are you doing that for?” I explained that when I get nervous or upset or angry, I sing.  It makes me feel better. “My mother may be dying.”  The room got quiet. Then a little voice, a grade seven boy said, “ My Kookum died this morning.” We looked at each other.  We spoke comforting words to each other. Empathy and loss make good glue. They were really kind to me from then on. They focussed on what was important. They made a YouTube Valentine movie to the world for me to post on my way to what turned out to be my mom’s funeral.

These are great kids. This is a caring community that needs the kind of support that makes a difference. There are more and more northern Aboriginal families moving to Thunder Bay to make a positive move in their lives.  But these kids, surrounded by their families, could have a great start in their journeys if they just had more of the kinds of programs that organizations like DAREarts brings to them.

Kids watchingkids playing w art

During this year’s showcase, the little kids came to see what was going on. The continuity of our visits surely must have a stabilizing effect on them, as outsiders who truly care about them. They looked at the artwork and played with it respectfully.  They asked to see “That Raven movie again.” And watched their older siblings and cousins, who had gone out of the community to school, here on the screen.  We were asked again and again by parents if we’re coming back.

Our answer is, as always, “If you want us to come back, of course we will.” And we always find a way. But in the meantime, the You Tube, the Facebook and Twitter all help us to stay connected. Both teachers and students. They connect with each other. DAREarts keeps coming back, year after year. We see those kids grow up. They become DAREarts mentors for other kids. The Seven Teachings and DAREarts Values mesh to make a pretty good map for learning and creating.

The only good thing about leaving the north is, we know we’ll be coming back.


-by Cathy Elliott, Mi’kmaq DAREarts First Roots Artist/Teacher

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Guest Post–Cathy Elliott- Spring Comes Early at Four in the Morning (Attawapiskat)

A month ago, DAREarts artist-as-teacher Cathy Elliott travelled to the Aboriginal community of Attawapiskat, Ontario, to empower the children and the community through the arts. The following post is her written report from day two of her DAREarts journey:

DAREday Two: Spring Equinox


I can’t believe I’m awake, typing right now.  I’ve got earplugs but the sound of my own heart-beat is keeping me awake.  How can kids possibly stay alert when they can’t keep out the sounds of other people walking up and down the hall or even just breathing next door all night long?  Of course, I’m in a new place and am very excited about the next few days…

Besides, it’s officially Spring Equinox.  The Ladies Drumming Group at the Porcupine Lodge over in Shubie N.S. (thousands of K’s away) are singing in the spring with a Sacred Fire Ceremony. I swear I can hear them, too.

And the guy next to me is snoring.  So.  Might as well write.

In a few hours I’ll go out and take some dawn pictures of a new day.  So much for catching up on my sleep.

James Bay Royalty…

Wapistan on the Polar Bear Express (Creative Commons License)


A few hours ago I was in the communal kitchen eating my dinner when Lawrence Martin came in and joined me.  Remember that guy I ran into at the Northern Store?  We got to talking about music and both pulled out our Macs and listened to each other’s music.  He started telling me about concerts with Tom Jackson and Kashtin and Susan Aglukark and I realized I was jabbin’ with a Canadian Legend!  Quick- Wikipedia: Not only is he the first Aboriginal Album of the Year winner, he was mayor of Sioux Lookout (I knew I really liked that place for a good reason) the first Aboriginal mayor of a municipality that wasn’t a Rez.  He’s currently the Mayor of Cochran?! I really hope he gets up and sings and plays with us on Friday.  (No pressure, Lawrence!)  I’m such a dope.  I need an education about the fantastic Aboriginal people in this country.  This province.  And here I was all impressed with myself that I met Wills & Kate last summer!  Jeez.

What do you all think about an album, with Nashville musicians, super star Aboriginal singers, covering songs written by our Aboriginal Youth?  Hmmmm?  Just putting it out there…


So excited about my first class with the grade 8’s.  I went out into the foggy morning and noting how slippery the ground was, with both hands occupied with guitar, computer and indoor shoes, gingerly stepped off the icy puddle and onto the solid snow bank.  And sank up to my knee in water.
I had stepped into the ditch which was hiding under that snow and the water that poured into the top of my boot was bone numbing cold.  I went back inside, and on a suggestion by the proprietress of the Inn, put grocery bags in my boots to keep my feet dry.  I walked to the school with white plastic sticking out of my boots.

That’s how my day started.

I just met two classes full of youth who are quiet, direct and seemingly cautious.  I like them a lot.  We’ve been brainstorming this morning about stuff that makes them tick.  What makes them prickly.  What they want for the future.  This afternoon I’ll meet up with the grade six’s again, and we’ll get started. Tomorrow I’ll meet the grade seven students.

I sang my song “Kitchen in Saint John” for those youth and their teachers.  It was, as usual an emotional thing for me to open up to them.  To expose my heart and show them what music has done for me as a youth.  This is all a very personal experience for me, and creating art can sometimes be hard.  But it does open up avenues of communication that speeches some times cannot.  (I tip my toque to AFN B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, who spoke to my heart during the Crown and First Nations Gathering.)  The voices of children can go straight to your heart, too.

2:30 pm

What a day! Worked with the sixth grades and both classes came up with uniquely different ideas.  Tomorrow we’ll do the grunt work.  Building the verses and chorus, and the bridge.  Building the hook.  Hopefully the hook will be in Cree.  The melodies will happen at the same time.  I don’t have long periods with the students.  They don’t have time to get bogged down.  There are a few really out-going students who have no problem speaking out.  There are other ones, the wheels turning behind their eyes.  I’m hoping they’ll have great things to say once they’ve processed.  I’m a lot like that.  Some of them, like me, are visually oriented.  That’s an over-used term, I know, but it’s true.  Thinking in pictures.  That’s what makes poetry.  And great lyrics.   The day ended for me with a big belly laugh.  All of us, just killing ourselves laughing at one of the clever lines one of the boys came up with.  I was writing it down and giggling.  The teachers are a great help, too.  I love challenging them as well.  They don’t get to sit back and just watch.  Nope.

A walk down to the river during lunch and a view of the closed winter road showed me just how intense this spring heat is.  It’s19C out there.  The front-loaders have been working all day shovelling heavy melting snow.  The sky is blue and the sun is beaming down on Attawapiskat.  Everybody is out, working on sleighs, repairing things, sitting around and soaking up the sun or just walking around.  The Yurt is sitting down there, all pretty and incongruous.  The little kids are having a blast with the mud and the puddles.  My coat is muddied from a playful dog. I think I have a sunburn.

One more little note for the day:  Check out article from NetNewsledger about one of the youth from this community making Canadian History:  Way to go, Chelsea!

Cathy’s personal blog can be viewed at http://cathyelliottcom.blogspot.ca.

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Guest Post–Cathy Elliott–Travel Day (Attawapiskat)

A month ago, DAREarts artist-as-teacher Cathy Elliott travelled to the Aboriginal community of Attawapiskat, Ontario, to empower the children and the community through the arts. The following post is her written report from day one of her DAREarts journey:

DAREday One: Spring Fever


I’ve been up since five am.  No traffic on the way here.  Last night, at around midnight, I googled the White Wolf Inn and had a little panic.  I emailed Marilyn and asked, “Where is this place?  Exactly?”  The green arrow is Attawapiskat.

Met a couple of lovely ladies in the waiting area.  They’ve started a list of things to look out for as well as some interesting tidbits:

1. Take a shower early in the morning because the pressure just disappears at breakfast time.

2. If you have any cuts, don’t shower.  Cholera.

3. There was access to water at the filtration plant but somebody put up a fence around it and ischarging people for it.

4. The river water (I’m assuming up river) is fine to drink.

5. Be careful of curbs. (this isn’t about Attawapiskat – the young drumming teacher broke her kneecap and it took six months for her leg to be fixed.  It had unhinged and flapped around like a coat sleeve)


Waiting for the plane to take off there’s an alarm going off in the cockpit. when they closed the door it cut the sound off.  Should I worry?

I’ve never been in a Q400 before.  It could be a challenge for chlostraphobics because the wings block the windows.  I’m flying towards Moosefactory.  Man, when I went there on the Polar Bear Express back in the eighties I thought I was Really Far North.  We’ll stop there first. I’m guite possibly going farther than I’ve ever gone before. All by myself.  And yet, when I talk to people I feel as if I’ve been here forever.

ps Thunder Air is in a completely different building. When I didn’t turn up, they sent a van for me. The ladies went off to Moosefactory and I got on my little plane to Attawapiskat.

pss I’m the only woman on this plane.


Now that I’m sitting down in my room at the Inn, I can reflect on the really nice people I’ve met today.  I ran into Wapistan – Lawrence Martin at the Northern Store.  He asked me about my guitar.  We chatted about music, and I told him that we’d love to have him help us out at the school.  He  won the first Aboriginal Music Juno.  The Vice Principal, Wayne, loves bluegrass, and writes.  He met the love of his life through music.  I met a class full of grade six’s who are bright, curious, respectful.  The grade sevens weren’t in their class because somebody got into in the portable and trashed it during March Break.  I’ll meet them tomorrow.

We have an extra day!  We’re going to have our community show at a civilized time.  Eight o’clock pm. Not only that, but some of the grown ups want to get up and sing, too.  I think I’ll sing a couple of songs.  But the focus will be on the songs these kids come up with.  I do like the idea of the community celebrating with the kids.  They’re going to open up the canteen, so it’ll be a big do.  Yay! I do like a big do.

There is, as promised, about a foot of mud in places.  The snow is melting so fast they have front loaders scooping it away from houses so that they don’t flood.  It’s something like 16C out there right now.  Tomorrow it’ll be 18 and sunny.  Man, good thing I have the kids a half hour at a time.  It’s going to be hard to concentrate. One of the girls mentioned that she loves to drum.  She just gets sticks and practices with them.  Note to DAREarts: get some drum sticks up here.  Which brings me to an interesting problem.  One of our students from Ogoki Post who is living in Geralton with his mom is receiving our inaugural Jay Tennant Musical Scholarship. Thing is, we can’t find a music teacher in Geralton!  We’ll have to figure something out.  Our recipient is a terrific singer and wants to learn guitar and write hip hop songs.  So frustrating that there are kids out there who have the desire and the possibility is being thwarted by distance.  We’ll figure something out though…But I digress…

I took a walk around, and my head swirled with the images of the ground I saw from far above.  The ground runs in rivulets and looks like the land from a plane.   From up there, the skidoo tracks on the river looked like skate marks.  The room I’m in is quiet at the moment.  But it’s pretty much like that shelter the families are living in, the trailers all stitched together.  There’s a communal kitchen and bathrooms.  When people get home from work it’ll get noisy.  Internet’s good.  TV’s better than what I get at home.  Cable!  And I get to see the run down of the community happenings from the screen:

I’m having a hard time not going out there to walk around.  I think I need to nap, though.  Been up since five and I have to stay healthy. 

Tomorrow, we begin! And, I think I gotta get me some lemon squares.

Cathy’s personal blog can be viewed at http://cathyelliottcom.blogspot.ca.