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Attawapiskat Youth Are Ready To Show Canada Their Strength

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Last month, I wrote about my frustration with how slowly Canada is moving toward reconciliation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples. I despaired about the bad news coming out of reservations, the streets, the jails, our women and girls, the youth suicides... and wondered if we were ever going to move from pretty words to action.

My question was answered when I was sent by DAREarts First Roots to Attawapiskat FN, a beautiful remote community I'd visited twice before, and I found the good news. It's generated by the youth. We didn't talk about suicide. Or housing. Or water. DAREarts/The Royal Conservatory artist-educator, Shelley MacDonald, (Mi'kmaq herself,) and I didn't have to pull a story out of the air. It came through the kids themselves, through their words and music and voices, with the help of DAREarts musician-educator, Glenn Marais.

They want to challenge the outsider's view of their community head on. What better way to achieve this than to project YouTube video of Peter Mansbridge announcing yet another crisis in their community, onto their own faces?

It didn't take long for the ideas to multiply. With exams in the mornings, they came into the art class (run by the tornado-art teacher, Mandy Alves) ready and raring to continue shooting their video. The days were very long, very close to Solstice, so we broke for supper and headed out again at 9:30 to do "magic hour" exterior shots around "Atta."

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(Photo: Attawapiskat Student)

What struck me the most was the quiet determination of these young people. They live in ridiculous conditions. They still can't shower in hot water too long because of the heavy metals, pollutants and bacteria. They endure the scrutiny of countless documentaries, news bites, tweets and comments. They bunk with five or more siblings and cousins in small, inadequate housing. They have nowhere to go, nowhere to hang out, to be occupied in a positive way.

"Something here needs to be done." They chose this opportunity to express what they want the world to see. Their beauty. Their strength and resilience. Their humour.

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(Photo: Attawapiskat Student)

On the last official day of shooting and roughing in the edit, they had one more thing to shoot: a walk around the community to unite against drug dealers and bootleggers. Even that was dealt with in a humourous way. "Sober is Sexy" signs in Cree and English on florescent boards held aloft as the drummers walked behind the NAPS car, which led the walk, lights spinning. Little kids, moms with strollers, men with babes in arms...

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(Photo: Shelley MacDonald)

I marched with them, drummed with them, feeling the love and pride swelling in my heart. I heard a little girl's voice beside me. "Can I drum?" I gave her my drumstick and she drummed. Then another girl, then one of the boys who worked on the video spoke on my right.

"What's that on your drum?" I told him about the marks on the moose hide and how they dictated what I should paint. I asked him if he had a drum. No. But he'll make one some day.

I really hope so. If there was a cultural centre, with Elders working with the kids like they have in Serpent River FN and New Credit FN, he'd have one in his hand already. But the youth are trying to get something going. They're willing to do the work. They just need a little help to get started. But mostly they need to be heard.

When we got to the final big Prayer Circle at the end of the march, the drummers lined up, and I stood there a moment, wondering if I should drum or just stay silent for the songs. That boy, Zach, came back and without a word I handed him the drum and he joined the line up of hand drummers. My heart swelled and my eyes pricked with tears. Happy ones.

These kids are worth it. They want to reach out to you. They have the words and music. They have the ability to lead and inspire.

And hopefully, they'll have your good, receiving ear.

Click here to watch Attawapiskat Youth Present: Walking for Peace.

"Hi, Canada."

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(Photo: Shelley MacDonald)

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