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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Mikw Chiyâm nurtures a growing Cree arts scene

BY Patrick Quinn Feb 1, 2022

True to its name, the Mikw Chiyâm program has been “moving forward without hesitation” since it was launched in 2015. 

Seven years later, it’s now a popular part of the Cree School Board curriculum from Secondary 1 through Secondary 5. From seven participants in Mistissini during its first year, the unique arts residency program currently includes 253 students in all nine Cree secondary schools.

While the CSB worked with non-profit organization inPath to bring Mikw Chiyâm to life, an arts consultant was recently hired to help organize a greater local role in its operation. 

“The program was brought into nurture student retention and provide motivation,” said program director Julia Therrien. “We’ve definitely seen a positive impact in attendance and grades. The kids in the first year were really helpful in informing us what they wanted to see.”  

Mikw Chiyâm invites professional artists from different disciplines into classes that are led by local teachers. The four artist residencies featured in the past have been reduced to three since the Covid pandemic, with one before winter break and two between January and Goose Break. Students end the school year with an independent project in their chosen medium. 

Students generally apply for Mikw Chiyâm as an arts elective, but pandemic challenges prompted some schools to directly place students rather than resort to waiting lists – sometimes resulting in huge classes. And, despite interruptions to in-person learning, Mikw Chiyâm continues to expand. In particular, the Emerging Artist and Youth Artist Assistant programs are creating ongoing opportunities.

“A lot of youth say it’s created a safe space where they can express themselves in the community,” Therrien told the Nation. “Our post-Mikw-Chiyâm programs were developed to continue that space outside of the classroom. We’re now seeing Youth Artist Assistants applying to the Emerging Artists the following year and eventually making it full circle to being an artist in residence, which is very neat.” 

Most youth assistants are recent graduates who return to Mikw Chiyâm classrooms to support students while continuing their arts training and developing their portfolios. 

During the second year of her program, Jossée Bernier completed residencies and performed at festivals with Mikw Chiyâm that she says completely changed her life direction. After an online residency in Eastmain, the multidisciplinary artist taught screenprinting, painting and poetry in her home community of Ouje-Bougoumou. 

“The Emerging Artist program has been a monumental tool to support employability and develop entrepreneur skills,” said Bernier. “I’ve definitely been able to dream bigger and connect with other artists in the industry. It’s opened incredible doors – an opportunity to go further with this in life, whether that’s personally or professionally.”

Bernier enjoyed seeing students develop their creative passions after being inspired by Indigenous artists who have established successful careers doing what they love.

Her passions of art and mental health were established after the program helped her solve own teenage emotions of wanting to avoid school. Now she sees other Mikw Chiyâm students blossom as they overcome their reticence and insecurities while forming meaningful relationships.

“Art is what brings us there, but what we do in the classroom keeps us together,” shared Bernier. “It’s been really special because sometimes the school environment isn’t always conducive to creativity. By the end of the residency, the students who are most reluctant to get involved usually end up being the most involved.”

Among the program’s goals is empowering individual and collective voices by challenging social barriers and fears. Artists like Peatr Thomas provide a guiding theme for projects – for instance, community-based collaborative murals. He believes that street-art practices like spray painting stencils can be a less intimidating gateway to expression, as they were for him.

“I’m trying to pass on skills that have helped me in life,” Thomas told the Nation. “Art itself can be real confidence building. Learning how to express yourself is not something I was taught in school. School taught me that failing is bad, but when it comes to any art form or really anything in life, failure is the best teacher.”

Working in classrooms throughout Eeyou Istchee, music producer Christian Monias (aka CJAY GRiZ) saw how transformative it can be for teens to develop connections with professional artists working in their desired fields. One of the first Cree Nation artists in residence four years ago, he says many students opened up to him, especially in his home community of Chisasibi. 

“There’s a deeper understanding because we’re from the same place,” Monias explained. “I like to open up opportunities for them, whether it’s music-making or other types of art. There are a lot of resources these days. I’m trying to keep them motivated and going.”

While Monias can relate to Northern artists feeling discouraged by a relative lack of performance possibilities, especially during the pandemic, he believes Mikw Chiyâm provides a platform for artists to feel like artists. He credits the inPath and CSB team for keeping these creative fires burning.

Monias collaborates with rising stars like Angel Baribeau and Franklin Moar, who both got their start in Mikw Chiyâm’s first year and are now facilitators. He continues to mentor former students like Daniel, who he met during a residency in Nemaska and who is now in the Emerging Artist program.

“The program is creating its own people to run it,” said Monias. “Before, I couldn’t think of many artists I wanted to collaborate with, but now I can. There’s a healthy scene now that’s growing.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.