Mistissini was chosen as the site for the Mikw Chiyâm pilot project seven years ago because of Voyageur Memorial High School’s eagerness and readiness to implement all the program’s music, visual arts, drama/multimedia and dance components.
This early adoption resulted in an enviable collection of equipment and materials that students are free to use, including digital animation tools and frames for screen printing. It’s safe to say not every school is fortunate enough to have a professional recording studio as Voyageur Memorial does.
“Parents say I wish I had that when I was in school,” shared Marcela Henriquez, the local program’s teacher. “Mistissini has been lucky. For every residency we have a budget for ordering materials, depending on the project we’ll be doing with the artist.”
After hearing about Mikw Chiyâm from friends who helped found the program, Henriquez quit her tenured position in Montreal and moved to Mistissini in 2016. As she’s encouraged students to take ownership of the program, its success has been shaped by an openness to continuously evolve.
“We try to shape it to the way they see it,” Henriquez told the Nation. “Every year we adapt, see what works and what doesn’t. Seeing how empowered students are through self-expression is inspiring not just as a teacher but as an artist, pushing myself to learn new things. I tell students I may be your teacher but I’m still learning.”
From seven Mikw Chiyâm students in its first year, Mistissini currently has 118 enrolled in all five levels of secondary school – far more than any other school. This results from a pandemic-related decision to assign participants based on their expected suitability for the program, an imperfect system but preferable to previous pandemic years when only Secondary 1 and 2 students were admitted.
With not all participants sharing artistic motivations, Henriquez hopes to return to an open application process with interested students divided into junior and senior cycles. While managing five large classes is challenging, it’s been even harder trying to work online since schools closed before Christmas.
“It’s really challenging finding lessons or activities accessible to everyone,” admitted Henriquez. “Not everybody has colouring pencils or even paper at home. Being teenagers, they won’t necessarily say it, but I can tell they miss being in school.”
The omicron outbreak has delayed the next artist residency involving textile techniques and beading, guided by Melanie Garcia and potentially local beadwork artists. Before the holidays, Alberta Cree/Métis artist Cindy Paul led students in free-writing, beat-making and mixing exercises to develop two songs that were ultimately played on local radio.
Prior to each artist’s arrival, a guiding question such as “what stories do you carry” is determined with the input of the artist and youth artist assistants (YAA), who are hired from recent graduates of the program. Last year’s YAA, Sara Gunner, is now working with the organization as YAA lead for all Cree communities, demonstrating the opportunities Mikw Chiyâm is creating for youth.
“You can see the cycle of how they get inspired to take their place in the education of our youth in the Cree Nation,” explained Henriquez. “Angel Baribeau graduated from the program and is now an artist for Mikw Chiyâm working with different communities. Students see you can really pursue your dreams. It is possible to build a life with the skills you learn – Angel is a clear example of that.”
While Baribeau, the artist who now uses the name Siibii Petawabano, has always been passionate about singing and songwriting, they were initially reluctant to participate in the music workshop that became Mikw Chiyâm. As they acquired skills and confidence during the program’s first three years, Petawabano gradually grew comfortable being an artist and became the first former student to become an artist-in-residence.
“Before the program, I didn’t see any pursuit of a career in the arts to be viable,” Petawabano told the Nation. “It wasn’t until I started meeting folks in those classrooms who made art their lives, I started to understand it is legitimate. They helped push me out of my comfort zone and understand I loved doing certain things I never would have realized otherwise.”
Already a gifted singer, Mikw Chiyâm taught Petawabano the importance of equipment and meticulous production as they assembled the layers of their first self-produced song. Equally valuable have been the unexpected connections formed with both Elders and young artists.
“InPath and Mikw Chiyâm created a web of artists that extend beyond Eeyou Istchee,” Petawabano asserted. “That’s something I’ll always be grateful for. I’d see them on Facebook and wish I lived in that community because [they’re] so cool. I’ve had the honour of working with some of my heroes.”
Working with youth as an artist-in-residence is a natural fit for Petawabano, whose mother is a teacher. Remembering clearly their struggles with mental health as a student just a few years earlier, they can now share lessons in technique and self-acceptance from the other side of the classroom.
“I’m like, ‘Guys, I came from here just like you’,” Petawabano recalled. “I went somewhere and you’re going to go somewhere too. You have alternative routes in life. Go to college if you see your future there or if you see yourself pining away in a little studio making something you love, you can do that too.”
As the recent grand prize winner of Canada’s Walk of Fame RBC Emerging Musician Program and with over 200,000 streams of their last EP, Petawabano is taking a break from residencies this year to focus on their next project. They encourage everyone to support kids at Mikw Chiyâm’s celebrations with intimate knowledge of the profound impact that can generate.
“When community members see this amazing art, that helps deconstruct the narrative that art is not a career or lifestyle,” said Petawabano. “We’re a nation of artists. Making snowshoes, even hunting – it’s intrinsically part of our culture.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter