Known for celebrity-endorsed fundraising and enthusiastic motivational speakers, the WE children’s charity shifted gears this year at the live WE Day event in Montreal.
Taking place February 11 and 12 at Théâtre St-Denis, WE Day Montreal still brought high-energy musical and dance performances – crowd participation strongly encouraged – but it also paused for sombre reflection and emotional testimony, with issues of Indigenous experience and mental wellness taking centre stage.
A group of Cree youth participating in the Mikw Chiyam arts program at Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial High School made the trip to Montreal with their teachers and some of their families, accompanied by program directors David Hodges and Katie Green. This year was especially exciting for the Cree in attendance, as students and artists Angel Baribeau and Kim Wapachee-McDougall were invited to perform.
The day began with a lesson on creation and a welcoming prayer by Mohawk Elder Kawennatos Sedalia Fazio, who spoke to the importance of taking care of Mother Sky and Mother Earth if we wish for them to continue to care for us. Shortly after, Nakuset, the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, shared her heartbreaking story of being reunited with her sister years after the Sixties Scoop, only to lose her again when she took her own life after a battle with depression.
“When a warrior falls, how do you pick yourself up?” she asked, before placing some tobacco on stage to honour her sister. “Working at the shelter allows me to contribute to making a better future for those who are suffering. You all have the capacity to make change, but you can’t do it alone. My challenge to you is to create your own dream team, follow your passions and create change.”
While there was plenty of emotion in the room throughout the morning and afternoon, the program also included lighter moments such as a live video chat with astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who called in from the International Space Station. As he floated in zero gravity and twirled his microphone in the air he offered the youth in attendance some great advice.
“Your dream is a direction, not a destination,” he said, “always make decisions that will make you happy.”
Finally, it was time for two Cree youth to take their turn to shine.
First up was Angel Baribeau, who bravely stepped on stage and shared her struggles with self-worth and the battle to reconcile her Indigenous identity with the stereotypes and negative representations too often perpetuated about Natives and First Nations communities.
“Growing up on reserve I was always surrounded by addiction,” she told the 2000-plus in attendance. “Mental-health problems eventually revealed themselves through substance abuse and addiction. I looked around and only saw negative perspectives of my Indigenous community, but then I looked again.”
Baribeau explained that thanks to the help of the N’we Jinan music program, she was able to find her voice through art and see both herself and her community in a new light. “One day I hope to help build healing centres in our communities so our people don’t have to go so far to get help.”
Baribeau then brought out classmate Kim Wapachee-McDougall to accompany her on ukulele for an original song titled “Lemon Heart”. It was a short, powerful and emotional musical performance that encapsulated her journey towards becoming comfortable in her own skin – and highlighted her amazing voice.
“I wrote this song about someone going through self-image struggles and struggles with the world around them,” she told the Nation later that day. “It took me a long time to realize that I wrote the song about myself, how I saw my communities and Aboriginal people being portrayed. It’s also about acceptance and being able to accept help from other people.”
Both Baribeau and Wapachee-McDougall were thrilled to be able to perform in front of such a large crowd of their peers and the whole Mikw Chiyam crew from Mistissini seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day’s activities. Baribeau and Wapachee-McDougall described the nerves and excitement they experienced both in the days leading up to the event and while they were on stage.
“We play [that song] a lot,” said Baribeau. “But this was the biggest crowd yet, it was very nerve-wracking. I was sweating bullets and I still have an unsettled stomach. I always get into my head before performances but Kim and I have this tradition, a ritual, where we picture the worst possible outcome. I could go out and cuss in front of all the kids, and she could trip on her way out and fall in front of everyone – it really helps because then we just laugh about it.”
“For the first hour it was all fun,” said Wapachee-McDougall. “Then we got to the side of the stage and I was like, ‘This can’t be real!’ I didn’t know what to do [when I went out on stage] so I just waved.”
“I wish I could’ve been part of the crowd and watched the rest of the show,” added Baribeau. “We met a lot of inspiring people backstage.”
Asked what’s up next in their musical endeavours, Baribeau said they have a couple things in the works and will hopefully be recording some more music in May. “It’s an open road from there,” she said.
The two young Cree women also had a couple important messages to deliver to members of their family.
“To Robert Baribeau, ‘Do you believe me now?’ Signed, your daughter,” said Baribeau.
“Can you message my mom and say, ‘Is it a job yet?’” asked Wapachee-McDougall.
Cree Justice Director Donald Nicholls, who has helped organize annual trips to WE Day for Cree youth for five years, summed up the positive influence the WE organization has had. He also brought the group of Cree students backstage at lunch to meet WE Day founder Craig Kielburger and take a group photo.
“We’ve had a long-standing partnership that brings children and youth from our communities to WE Days and Me to We leadership camps,” he said. “The organization inspires children to make impacts in their communities and to be global citizens. This year was incredibly special as we saw Cree youth on stage, speaking and inspiring thousands of children with their story and their song.”