DAREarts, the Spirit Bear, and Ontario 150: A Reflection

Written by DAREarts Lead Teacher Laura MacKinnon & Artist-Educator Glenn Marais.

DAREarts has been with working with Indigenous communities for 12 years.  The first community we worked with was Webequie First Nation. We were invited there after facilitating an arts program at a Junior Rangers camp, a branch of the military that teaches young men and women from different reserves how to do search and rescue in the far north.  It is a source of employment and a direct method of engaging youth in the development of self-esteem and leadership skills.  It was there that DAREarts founder, Marilyn Field, first met Bill Jacob from Webequie.  He spoke to her about his community and asked if DAREarts would come and help the young people there. Webequie was reeling from youth suicide, to which Bill had lost his own 14 year-old daughter.  This reality is so difficult to comprehend, but DAREarts has always worked with the most challenged youth in the most difficult of circumstances and we humbly accepted this invitation.  With open hearts and minds, we flew to the community, wishing only to bring some hope and empowerment to the young people, through what we had to offer – songwriting, poetry, dance, visual art, photography, film and music.  That first trip began an ongoing relationship with that community that has expanded, through invitations, to include many others across northern Ontario and the rest of the country.

For DAREarts, Ontario 150 is about taking the time to reflect on, and renew the relationship between Indigenous people and us.  It’s a chance to amplify and elevate the voices of Indigenous youth, too often kept on the fringes, or not heard at all.  It is also a reminder that it is essential that we move forward together in a better way.  It’s an opportunity to acknowledge the diversity of Indigenous peoples and communities.  Each First Nation we worked with this year  – Webequie, Marten Falls, Attawapiskat and Neskantaga – invited DAREarts for their own reasons and under their own auspices.

The ‘Spirit Bear’ project has been created in partnership with the Stratford Festival in alignment with the world premiere of the play “The Breathing Hole”, a story of 500 years of Arctic history through the eyes of a polar bear.  In each community, the program began with a bear story or teaching shared by an elder, which then guided our creativity.  While ‘Spirit Bear’ was a shared theme in all communities, the local teachings and stories that were shared were different.  The experiences of the young people are different.  The artwork created is different.  The language, culture and traditions, are different.  This is a beautiful opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate these unique and essential voices.  In any community we work with, the young people always teach us more than we teach them.  Ontario 150 should be taken as a reminder for us to become better listeners and better partners moving forward.

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The Four Directions of the Spirit Bear Project

Neskantaga, a new community to us, is the infant, the newborn.  A budding relationship, only just started.  The young people eager to experience the arts, to try out their voices for the first time, to tentatively reach out and forge a new bond.  We are in the process of learning about one another. This was our first visit to the community and we hope to return.

Attawapiskat is the youth, our visits numbering only four.  Energetic, passionate, wide-eyed, and learning about its budding power.  A collection of voices so strong in pride and culture that you can sense the wave of change they will bring as they mature into leaders.

Marten Falls is the adult.  A community that has taught us so much over the many years we’ve visited.  They have taught us about love, about compassion, about patience, about responsibility and about the necessity of respect and honesty.  Every year we return to a group of youth willing to try, to work long hours and to share their creative voices.  While the relationship has existed for many years, every year it grows and changes and never stagnates.

Webequie is the elder.  A relationship that has existed for over a decade and continues to evolve.  The community that taught us protocol, humility, openness and responsibility.  The people and place that taught us to be inventive, flexible, inclusive and caring.  The community that opened our eyes to the experience of Indigenous people but taught us to look past outward appearances to the souls within.  Through patient, generous teachings, they taught us about community – how to build it and how to maintain it.  They taught us about the importance of going back – that change does not happen by flying in and out a single time.  They taught us you have to leave more than you take with you.  That relationships are paramount.  That trust takes time.  That you need to examine your own ego and intentions carefully as guest artists in someone else’s home.  That the time you spend outside of the program together – just as people – is essential.  That we should all listen more and talk less.

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As we reflect on a Sunday morning, at the end of this wonderful experience, our minds and memories are full with a year that was beyond anything we could have imagined.

We picture the giant bear in Marten Falls, our adult community, from our first visit in October 2016.  It was constructed from empty water bottles, and we see it standing on the shore of the mighty Albany River gleaming proudly in the sun, her delicate frame crafted through hours of toil.  With the students, we were driven to create a symbolic icon that would tell the world that the people of Marten Falls have to drink water from a bottle and can’t drink from their own river, or a tap.  This needs to change. We remember the deep love we have for those students there and how acutely we felt the challenges of their lives.

Thinking about our second visit, a week later, we feel the warmth of our friends in Webequie.  In particular, we remember the presence of many former students coming together in a spirited homecoming, happily sharing their wisdom, talents and encouragement with our younger participants.  Most of all, we remember the laughter, the joy and the tremendous pride we have in our elder community.

We arrived in Attawapiskat, our third community, on June 04th 2017.  In a very short time, we created a film, song and visual art pieces with the high school students.   The young people of this community are incredibly self-aware and open about the challenges they face.  Their unmatched desire to have the world hear their message, unfettered by false media manipulation, motivates them to create and advocate.  Their message is one of pride and a desire for change. The youth of Attawapiskat are tired of false promises and empty hopes. They have amongst them, a young man with the potential to lead our entire nation. He has the presence of Nelson Mandela and the wisdom of a man twice his age. His words and bearing moved us in ways that we will never forget and he personifies the changes needed in Attawapiskat.  He speaks to a way of living in harmony, respect and truth we can all learn from and aspire to.

Here in Neskantaga on June 18th 2017, we are on the final leg of our journey.  We reflect on this charming, friendly community that has a discipline and structure in their school of the highest level that we have seen in our travels.  There are many First Nations teachers and the students respect and honor their voice.  The young people here have become quick friends with us, opening their hearts and minds and we are so grateful.  This week, we have painted and created music together, inspired by the teachings of Elder Mary, who taught us about the lives of bears.  It feels appropriate that we end here, at the beginning, in our “birth community”, just as in life.

When we come full circle and look back on our journey through wizened eyes, we see again through the eyes of a child, the wonderful tapestry of life and know that our greatest gifts are the relationships that fill our hearts and minds. We have grown taller and wiser in the beauty and wisdom of the four directions and four communities that we have been so blessed to visit this year. We look back with indefatigable gratitude and joy at this glorious year with DAREarts.  Our leaning about the Spirit Bear and the spirit in each our young friends will live with us forever.

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Have we found answers to the challenges of the northern communities we visited during this incredible year?  There are no easy answers to a life lived in challenging circumstances with a history that has cast a long shadow on our indigenous friend’s lives. We are not there to provide magical solutions to the struggles of life. This is not our purpose in coming to the north, but perhaps, is what we are often reminded of by these beautiful young people. Each community shared what they needed and where they were at and the music really expressed these emotions. We believe that the songs come forth from the hearts of the communities we visit. In Marten Falls, the song is mournful and a beautiful lament that had us in tears the first time we sang it. The Webequie song was triumphant in a way and sung with such resilient pride by elder Norman Shewaybick that it captivated us all. The song from Attawapiskat is very much like the youth we worked with, strong, clear, rebellious in its clarion call for justice and finally our community of elementary students in Neskantaga whose song is sweet and charming and ethereal in its sounds and very much like how we feel about the community. That it is charming, friendly and welcoming.

We are all connected to something universal and eternal and here on this year long journey, with new friends and old, we have come to a simple reckoning. We are DAREarts and we show up with open hearts and leave full of memories and promise from our youth.

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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  1. Pingback: 2017 DAREarts Toronto Summer Camp – “Be not afraid of greatness.” | DAREarts Blog

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