I feel a greater sense of hope and optimism for the future these days when I talk to many of our young First Nations people. There are still many hurdles and difficulties they have to overcome but in many ways, they are becoming stronger, smarter and more confident people. I’ve witnessed those changes personally through the annual Wabun Youth Gathering, which I have been fortunate enough to attend regularly over the past decade.
The gathering is an annual event that is hosted by Wabun Health Services, a branch of the Wabun Tribal Council based in Timmins. Wabun is a tribal council of six First Nations based in northeastern Ontario. The youth gathering was born out of a wish by one of its community Elders, the late Thomas Saunders of Brunswick House First Nation, over 12 years ago. He had a vision to see Wabun youth come together to learn about their culture, language and heritage. Jean Lemieux, Wabun Health Director took Elder Saunders’ dream of a youth gathering to heart and developed the youth gathering with the support of the Wabun chiefs and management.
I’ve watched it grow from a small gathering to a major event that provides young people with access to workshop facilitators that teach them about drumming, singing, traditional crafts and Indigenous games. The gathering is not just fun and games as over the past 10 years it has brought together youth and trained individuals who provided education and knowledge about addictions, social issues, dealing with trauma, healing and bullying.
Every year, one or more Elders attend the event as a way to link the young people to their past through teachings and care from these grandmothers.
The greatest accomplishment of this gathering is the fact that it consistently offers a regular annual event that youth can look forward to every summer year after year. They can count on adults taking the time to care for them in a wilderness setting surrounded by friends. I did not have these types of gatherings to turn to when I was a boy in my home First Nation of Attawapiskat. We did have an event called Indian Days but it was a far cry from the healing and educational gatherings I see happening these days.
While attending the Mattagami First Nation annual powwow recently it occurred to me how lucky the new generation is with traditional events being brought back to First Nations. The Mattagami First Nation gathering regularly brings together drummers, singers and performers from the Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Cree and Algonquin communities. Mattagami Nation also sits on the shores of Mattagami Lake, which has excellent fishing and, every year, the Naveau family feeds the participants with pickerel freshly caught nearby.
Other families share foods like blueberries, fry breads and moose meat. I see with my own eyes and feel through my heart just how important the powwows are to our youth. Many of them are involved in helping organize and stage the event and they beam with pride as they welcome outsiders to their community.
The most important idea behind every Indigenous youth gathering, powwow or cultural event is the fact that it brings together friends, family, communities and the public at large to celebrate Indigenous culture and heritage. I believe it helps foster a sense of pride and hope for young people to feel confident in where they come from and who they are.
Over the years I have witnessed young men like Nathan Naveau and Mark Carpenter become accomplished drummers, singers and performers who have become respected and well-known on the powwow trail. I’ve watched boys become men as singers and drummers in groups like the Northern Spirit Singers of Brunswick House First Nation. Belonging to these groups demand adhering to rules and sober lifestyles, so the commitment these drummers and singers make is felt in their own community and beyond.
It makes me so proud to see young girls and women from the Wabun communities form their own hand drumming and singing groups. In many cases they make their own regalia, construct their drums and learn traditional songs from the Elders.
We have come a long way, but there is still much to be done to help our people. However, with every song, every dance and every beat of the heart of the drum, future generations find hope and strength.