Cree singer-songwriter Angel Baribeau was the first graduate of the Mikw Chiyâm arts program at Voyageur Memorial School in Mistissini, Quebec in 2017. Angel channeled their positive engagements and relationship-building with other young people into a new role as youth project lead with the Uusdaadaouw: Let’s Build Project.
Uusdaadaouw (pron: OOSH-da-dow) is a youth-led, art-driven initiative in six Cree communities across the Eeyou Istchee territory of northern Quebec. The project looked to identify and respond to community needs. Creative interventions were developed in collaboration with youth leaders, students and community organizations to provide support in areas such as health, wellness, resilience, land, environment and Miyupimaatisiiun — a Cree term for “living life well.”
“A lot of the youth identified problem spots, whether it was lateral violence, alcoholism, the need for recycling programs in their communities, sexual education … These kids, they’re not blind. They see what they’re lacking,” says Angel. “They were talking about the importance of the youth voice and that they want to be heard.”
Bringing communities together
The Uusdaadaouw: Let’s Build Project is supported by the RBC Foundation through the RBC Future Launch Community Challenge. It is implemented in partnership with the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada, the Cree Nation Government, the Cree School Board, the Mikw Chiyâm Program, the inPath Project, and the Cree Nation Youth Council.
The Uusdaadaouw project took place in the Mistissini, Nemaska, Waskaganish, Eastmain, Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui communities with student participants who were enrolled through the Mikw Chiyâm arts program at their respective schools.
In November 2019, youth representatives from each community worked alongside mentors from the Cree Nation Youth Council to dream up and map out the ways in which art and creativity could bring their communities together and foster resilience. After the project was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it re-started, continuing to the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Mikw Chiyâm arts program youth representatives worked alongside mentors from the Cree Nation Youth Council to dream up and map out the ways in which art and creativity could bring their communities together.
Angel, alongside one young leader per community, called Youth Artist Assistants, hosted a series of “Vital Conversations” throughout the year. These conversations connected community organizations with more than 150 students in 11 school classrooms. The participants designed and delivered collaborative art projects in songwriting and music production, photography, painting and installation, poetry, spoken word, creative writing and screen printing. Many of the creative projects were derived from the Miyupimaatisiiun theme and highlighted the beauty in each community as opposed to just the challenges.
“I was really inspired by all of the projects,” says Angel. “One of my favourites was in Chisasibi at the youth clinic. This was a brand new facility and it was kind of sterile. [The clinic] wanted youth to create art to feel like they belong. They ended up making canvas pieces that were put up throughout the clinic. I loved that principle of the organization wanting youth artwork for their youth.”
Youth representatives and mentors from the Cree Nation Youth Council
Learning through the arts with Cree Schools
The Mikw Chiyâm interdisciplinary arts program was launched in 2015 by the Cree School Board to inspire youth with alternative spaces for creative learning and through collaborations with professional Canadian Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. Given the challenges students are facing in accessing education and connecting with their peers throughout the pandemic, and given the specific mental health challenges facing Indigenous youth across Canada, Angel says arts-based programming remains more important than ever.
“It’s been proven that art can be used as therapy and as a means of expression. And I myself know that it saves lives. Arts programming has been very quick to be cut in federal funding. But they’re so incredibly important, especially when we’re talking about relations between First Nations people, and non-First Nations peoples … there’s something universal in creating art.”
“What makes Waskaganish so beautiful?” Collaborative art projects highlighted the beauty in each community and included songwriting and music production, photography, painting and installation, poetry, spoken word, creative writing and screen printing.
Accessing and supporting arts-related programming
As the project comes to a close, Angel would like to see more funding directed to arts programming in schools at the community, provincial and federal levels.
“I would like to see a world where we can provide programming not necessarily depending on whether a community can afford it,” Angel says.
“Every community — especially every First Nations community — should have access to this kind of programming.”
At just 21 years old, Angel also has a musical career and hopes to continue making music and working with Indigenous youth to design more arts-related programming.
“While I’m young, I want to focus on my music career and on creating content that brings a lot more awareness to conditions for First Nations people in Canada,” Angel says. “We are resilient, we are strong … we are still here.”
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