The Spirit Bear flies to Stratford!

DAREarts Webequie FN youth Wendell presents PM Trudeau with a collection of DAREarts Spirit Bear songs & videos

The DAREarts-Stratford Spirit Bear Project culminated with an action-packed week in Stratford, Ontario, where six Indigenous youths from our remote northern First Nations – Attawapiskat FN, Neskantaga FN, Webequie FN and Marten Falls FN (Ogoki Post) – travelled south to engage in Stratford Festival’s new play called The Breathing Hole about a polar bear encountering five centuries of change in northern Canada.

One highlight was a visit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who joined the youths in their workshop and learned of their songs, videos, artwork and bear puppet-making. Their songs conveyed empowering messages from the youth of each community:

Marten Falls FN:  “…Dreams keep you alive
Shine through the dark of night…”

Neskantaga FN: “…Just like us, we take care of our own…”

Attawapiskat FN: “…Courage is the one thing that helps us gain
Our histories…Our stories are a part of us…”

Webequie FN: “Together, stronger, each of us has a voice
Stronger, Together, each of us has a choice
Mashkwe seewin maa moe (stronger, together)”

Inspired by The Breathing Hole, each participating community had created various art-based projects surrounding their own traditional bear story, as told by local Elders and knowledge keepers.  The DAREarts team of artists-educators dared 150 young people to find their voices and be leaders through their own creativity.

Meeting the Bard himself at the Festival Theatre!

Every day in Stratford came with new experiences as the youths saw a wider world. They took tours of the Festival theatres and costume warehouse, met members of the community and Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and resident teaching artist Edward Duranyi, workshopped with cast members of The Breathing Hole, saw two Stratford Festival plays, and built the body of a bear puppet.  Many locals were eager to make this experience the best it could be for our youths by hosting activities including bowling, the movies, a boat tour of the Avon River, and backyard barbeques! These experiences were new and exciting for our northern youths!

Our week began with touring the Studio Theatre where The Breathing Hole is being performed. There, the youths smiled in pride to see the murals they had previously created in their communities with DAREarts displayed in the lobby and backstage as inspiration for the public and cast.  Before a workshop led by Indigenous actors, we made our circle a safe and sacred place with introductions and a smudge.  The actors told their stories about being a First Nations person working in theatre – their experiences both inspiring and empowering.  In the spirit of friendship and exchange, the actors taught our youths a song and dance from The Breathing Hole and we taught a song written by the youths of Neskantaga First Nation with DAREarts earlier this year.

“DAREarts and this trip have really helped my daughter by giving her the chance to be creative. You have to come back to our community.” – John Mathews, Attawapiskat FN parent

The DAREarts youths (and the mural by Neskantaga FN’s youth!) meet cast members Yolanda and Gordon of “The Breathing Hole”

We saw the Stratford Festival’s timeless Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet.  Much to the youths’ surprise, the language was English… but not any kind of English they had heard before!  It was their first time attending the theatre and the magic of the experience lit up their faces with wonder and amazement.

Guided by Michelle Jamieson, props assistant at the Stratford Festival, we built a bear puppet out of plastic water bottles, mirroring the original bear created in Marten Falls First Nation. This was a powerful statement addressing the reality of the boil water advisory under which so many First Nations communities live. With no road access, many communities are forced to fly in bottled water since the local water supply is not safe for consumption.  The bear is their message to the world:  “We deserve clean, drinkable water.”

“I like DAREarts because kids can show what they can do and they can learn new things from each other.” – Seequan, Webequie FN youth

On our last day in Stratford, we hosted one of the Festival’s renowned Forums, where we showcased the creative work done by the youths in their communities as part of the ONT 150 Spirit Bear Project.  Despite their extreme shyness, they each stepped up to introduce themselves. Their courage, leadership and spirit moved the audience. As a fitting and moving end to our trip, we watched a performance of The Breathing Hole, an overwhelming and beautiful story with a message to care for the land and one another – the same thing the youth themselves expressed to the world through their art.


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; and Streetsville Secondary School.

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