How dance is bring­ing joy to Pikangikum youth

‘We wanted to em­power the youth to tell their sto­ries through move­ment’

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - BOB HEP­BURN Bob Hep­burn’s col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers. bhep­burn@thes­

Sarah Ro­bichaud waited anx­iously in the school gym­na­sium late one af­ter­noon last spring to see if any­one would show up for the first work­shop of an in­no­va­tive dance project she was launch­ing for stu­dents in Pikangikum, a trou­bled com­mu­nity in re­mote North­west­ern On­tario.

Ro­bichaud was pre­pared for as few as two stu­dents — and she’d heard that maybe no one would come.

A few min­utes be­fore the start of the work­shop, though, a few stu­dents cau­tiously en­tered the gym. By the time the ses­sion be­gan, some 30 stu­dents from grades 6 to 12 had joined in.

Ro­bichaud, who had spent months pre­par­ing for that first day, was over­joyed that so many stu­dents, some of whom were so shy they would barely say their name, came to lis­ten to a woman from Toronto talk about dance, move­ment, per­sonal ex­pres­sion — and hav­ing fun.

The Pikangikum In­ter­gen­er­a­tional Dance Project that Ro­bichaud de­signed was aimed at pro­mot­ing con­nec­tion, cre­ation and ex­pres­sion be­tween the youth and adults in the com­mu­nity.

“We didn’t go there to teach them dance,” she says. “Rather, we wanted to em­power the youth to tell their sto­ries through move­ment.”

The task was dif­fi­cult, though, given the hard­ships faced by many of the stu­dents. It was also hard given that some ob­servers might ques­tion the worth­while­ness of out­siders com­ing to North­ern On­tario with their “lit­tle projects” that fail to ad­dress the mas­sive un­der­ly­ing prob­lems such iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties face.

Twenty stu­dents, rang­ing from Grades 6 to 12, per­form as part of the Pikangikum In­ter­gen­er­a­tional Dance Project at the Een­chokay Birch­stick school gym on June 7. Teach­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers were also part of the project and per­for­mance.

Pikangikum has re­ceived in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion over the last 20 years be­cause of its high rate of sui­cide, es­pe­cially among youths, and of men­tal-health is­sues. The prob­lems are so bad that the fly-in com­mu­nity of 2,500 res­i­dents was once called “the sui­cide cap­i­tal of the world.”

An es­ti­mated 75 per cent of the res­i­dents are un­der the age of 25, un­em­ploy­ment runs at 75 per cent and 80 per cent of homes have no run­ning wa­ter or toi­lets. Al­co­holism and drug abuse are wide­spread, as is gaso­line sniff­ing.

Just last month On­tario Health Min­is­ter Eric Hoskins an­nounced $1.6 mil­lion in new fund­ing for 20 full-time men­tal health work­ers for Pikangikum af­ter four more young peo­ple com­mit­ted sui­cide this summer.

Ro­bichaud had heard about the com­mu­nity’s prob­lems from her part­ner, Michael Ouel­lette, a physi­cian who has worked in Pikangikum for the last four years. “I was deeply moved by the prob­lems and wanted to help in some way.”

Sev­eral years ago Ro­bichaud, a clas­si­cally trainer dancer, had de­signed Danc­ing with Parkin­son’s, a pro­gram for those liv­ing with the dis­ease to in­crease aware­ness of the body through mo­tion and artis­tic con­nec­tion. “What if I did a sim­i­lar pro­gram with stu­dents in Pikangikum?” she asked her­self. With that, the project was born.

Ro­bichaud re­ceived ap­proval from the lo­cal band coun­cil and school au­thor­i­ties for the pro­gram and raised money to pur­chase cos­tumes and sup­plies.

In the work­shops, stu­dents were asked about their per­sonal sto­ries, ex­pe­ri­ences and un­der­stand­ing on these themes and they cre­ated ges­tures and dance phrases to ex­press their sto­ries, which Ro­bichaud then pieced to­gether into a full pro­gram.

Af­ter only 12 two-hour work­shops and re­hearsals, the 20 stu­dents who re­mained with the pro­gram cre­ated out of their own ex­pe­ri­ences an evening of dance that they per­formed be­fore nearly 300 par­ents, friends and com­mu­nity lead­ers.

Each sec­tion of the pro­gram was based on the Ojibwe seven grand­fa­ther teach­ings of truth, courage, hu­mil­ity, wisdom, re­spect, love and hon­esty.

When the pro­gram ended, the ap­plause was loud and sus­tained. Tears flowed and hugs and high-fives were ex­changed through­out the room.

Tess McLean, one of the vol­un­teers re­cruited by Ro­bichaud and who has been in­volved in dance ini­tia­tives for years, says she be­lieves the project has had a pos­i­tive im­pact for the stu­dents.

“It was one of the best ex­pe­ri­ences of my life,” she says, adding she hopes the pro­gram will be ex­panded in the com­ing school year.

Ro­bichaud is cur­rently work­ing with school and band lead­ers to ex­pand the project this fall to all grades. She also hopes lo­cal res­i­dents will as­sume lead­er­ship for the pro­gram.

Clearly, it’s easy for crit­ics to dis­miss such small projects as in­signif­i­cant and for fail­ing to tackle the larger is­sues fac­ing such trou­bled com­mu­ni­ties. But such crit­i­cism over­looks the im­por­tance these ini­tia­tives can play a role in help­ing par­tic­i­pants make new friends and gain con­fi­dence and pride from hav­ing de­vel­oped a ma­jor event from scratch.

It worked in Pikangikum, where ev­ery stu­dent who took part in the fi­nal per­for­mance plans to join again next sea­son.

Such an en­dorse­ment is rea­son enough to make it a con­tin­u­ing, year-round pro­gram and ex­tend it to other re­mote com­mu­ni­ties where hope and joy is in short sup­ply.


The Pikangikum In­ter­gen­er­a­tional dance project, per­formed at the Een­chokay Birch­stick school gym. The dancers ranged in age from Grade 6 to Grade 12. Teach­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers were also part of the project and per­for­mance.

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