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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Warrior Up! highlights Turtle Island’s young changemakers

BY Patrick Quinn May 30, 2024

A new APTN series called Warrior Up! is highlighting the stories of young Indigenous changemakers exemplifying what it means to be a modern-day warrior. Launched May 11, it’s been airing weekly on Saturday mornings and available for streaming on APTN lumi.

Alternately co-hosted by young actors Joshua Odjick, Anne Lambe and Joel Oulette, each episode focuses on one inspiring story from across Turtle Island. Chisasibi’s own Kayla Spencer is featured in Episode 7 alongside Rotshennón:ni Two-Axe from Kahnawake, who together founded Dawson College’s IndigeSTEM mentorship program. 

Realizing they were their schools’ only Indigenous science students, they hope to help others from small communities adapt to the rigorous workload and challenges of studying in the city. Since graduating from Dawson, Spencer has been working with Chisasibi’s youth department as she prepares for university studies in astrophysics or aerospace engineering. 

“My dream is to open my own observatory up north where we can do our own research,” said Spencer. “Higher education really shapes who you are. It’s the experience that comes with it – becoming more independent makes you grow as a person.”

Accepted into the University of Colorado, Spencer continues to work remotely with Dawson’s IndigeSTEM program, which is now led by Cree nursing student Robin Gull-Saganash. Warrior Up! researcher Ramelle Mair, who developed the show’s concept, described Spencer as “a real powerhouse” who has embraced being a role model for Cree youth.

“You see in their stories it’s because they’re supported that they can support others,” said Mair. “Sometimes we think people are heroes or exceptionally talented so we think I can’t do that. Yes, they’re leaders and know how to use their voice [but] it’s important to know how to ask for help.”

Spencer initially felt unprepared for post-secondary math and science studies, admitting she rarely had homework back in Chisasibi. She credits Dawson’s Journeys First Peoples program with easing the transition. IndigeSTEM mentor Joel Trudeau said Spencer and Two-Axe are both driven, mature, comfortable in their identities and able to express a vision. 

Anishinaabe co-host Odjick, who came from Kitigan Zibi to starring in Wildhood and Little Bird, could relate to overcoming small-town limitations. During this episode, Odjick joins Spencer at Montreal’s planetarium and Two-Axe’s competitive paddling practice. He’s even coaxed into dissecting a moose heart in an IndigeSTEM tutorial led by Two-Axe. 

Odjick was inspired by the changemakers’ efforts to improve their communities. He hosted episodes profiling Mi’kmaw activist Sophia Sidarous, who is one of the youngest graduates of Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and Trechelle Bunn from Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation, who organized Canada’s first Residential Run. 

But Odjick was most moved by his experience in a Minnesotan tent city helping distribute “blessing bags” with 16-year-old Isaac Garcia.

“An older woman who looked like she was hiding something had a plate of tobacco, used as an offering in prayer,” recalled Odjick. “There’s so much trauma life puts in our people’s way but they’re still asking the Creator. When she saw I was holding what would help her, she almost broke down crying – it just means the world to them.”

Conceived with an eco-warrior focus, the show’s scope expanded as rousing stories kept pouring in. Changemakers were chosen because their exploits were compelling for television and the timing fit the production’s tight shooting schedule. 

Sometimes the story was over before the crew could arrive, which nearly happened when five young Cherokee women retraced the infamous Trail of Tears their ancestors endured during their forced relocation almost 200 years ago, crossing six states by bicycle. Instead Picture This Productions “cobbled together a team” to shoot before principal photography was even ready. 

“The hope is APTN will pick us up for another season,” said David Finch, who co-produced the series with Maureen Marovitch. “We have tons more stories. Now there’s a buzz about the show, we’re going to start getting more people.”

Of Cree-Ojibwe-European heritage, Finch co-founded Montreal-based Picture This with Marovitch in 1995, focusing on social issue documentaries. 

“A documentary has to move people,” Finch asserted. “We want [viewers] to feel empowered, to change in some way. We’ve been making all sorts of communities’ stories known. We feel like we carry out a social service, like healing people from a distance.”

The series broadly interprets the term warrior as leadership figures who respect others and are respected. Finch recalled Tlicho Dene rapper Dylan Hope, who is featured alongside multimedia producer Cole Clark in a Yellowknife-based episode. 

“You don’t think he’s a changemaker, but he is,” said Finch. “He’s taken this initiative to voice what’s going on around him and that’s bravery. There are as many ways to define what it means to be a warrior as there are people doing it.”

Finch was particularly moved by Winnipeg-based Rylee Nepinak, who co-founded a youth outreach program. When Nepinak learned about a suicide crisis in the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, he began introducing youth to traditional healing ceremonies with powerful results. 

The series features a companion website including an Activism 101 toolkit for helping youth create change in their own communities. Indigenous empowerment extends to the soundtrack, which includes Cree musicians Mariame, Siibii, the NorthStars and PaulStar. Chisasibi’s Dinah Sam helped the editing team find the right music during her internship experience.

“I always felt like movies were more of a hobby for me, but after this work experience, I now know I can go very far with my desire to go into the film industry,” said Sam. She was fascinated by co-host Anna Lambe’s greenscreen filming and Inuktitut voice recordings for its Nunavut premiere this fall.

While Spencer was surprised her co-initiative was worthy of a documentary, Finch said her story represents many Indigenous youth who persevere despite significant obstacles. 

“This world is so full of strife and people bringing each other down, we need positive thinking and action,” Finch stated. “We’re trying to show there is power and health in positiveness. Every one of these people has that pride in our origins.”

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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.