Fred Ice is part of a seven-person committee that is spearheading the River of Tears Powwow in Thunder Bay on Dec. 30 as a way to raise awareness of the plight that Indigenous youth face in the city.
Ice said that the theme of the powwow, hosted by Marten Falls First Nation, is ‘honouring the youth.’ The powwow is titled River of Tears, which is what many have referred to the Neebing-McIntyre River in Thunder Bay as after the drowning deaths of youth in the water. There have been several deaths of First Nations youth in the water since 2000.
“We need to honour our youth,” Ice said. “It’s really important that we steer them in the right direction.”
The deaths of First Nations students attending school in the city between the year 2000 and 2011 was the center of a coroner’s inquest that wrapped up in 2016, resulting in 145 recommendations to improve the safety of Indigenous youth. Five youths in the inquest had drowned.
In 2017, the drowning deaths of 17-year old Tammy Keeash and 14-year old Josiah Begg who disappeared on the same day in May rocked the nation. Both youths were found in the Neebing-McIntyre River.
Ice hopes that the powwow will bring attention to the needs of the youth in the city.
The powwow is a way to inspire the youth and address the issues they face, and also to reconnect as a larger community, said Ice.
“That’s the way that our people did it, if we go back to tradition. People would come from all over to have this gathering, this feast, to exchange gifts, and the communities would make that connection again,” Ice explained. “And at the same time, make awareness of our youth because eventually our youth will become our leaders.”
Ice feels that youth reconnecting with their traditional culture might help them in a positive way, and play a role in keeping them safe, because he himself has experienced it first-hand.
“I am living proof, I can say that because if it hadn’t been for the (traditional) teachings that I got, like getting involved with powwows and so on, I would have been gone a long time ago myself,” he said. “It’s important, it’s what saved my life.”
Ice said that the disconnection from traditional culture stems from the Indian Residential School era, as well as involvement with foster care. He explained that he can see the same issues he had during his young life in youth today who are struggling.
“I’ve been down that trail,” Ice said. “I was raised in a white home, and I guess the trauma that I’ve been through myself wasn’t corrected at the time and I often wondered why. Now that I am at this age, and I understand it, I’m saying ‘well, OK. The youth need this help, they need guidance.’”
Ice said that the committee would like to have all 49 Nishnawbe Aski-Nation (NAN) communities involved, with hopes that the families of those who have perished in the river will attend as well.
The committee has also invited officials from Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), and also Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs.
Ice explained that he invited the mayor and law enforcement in hopes of addressing the situation that is going on with Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay, and the celebrate the youth. He hopes more organizations in the city will reach out to help and show support as well.
“We need our leaders to be able to assist in that situation,” Ice said. “Sometimes all that’s needed is for somebody to just pay attention to them (the youth).”
The powwow will be held on Dec.30 at the CLE Grounds in the Coliseum from 1 PM to 12 AM. The emcee is Jim Mishquart, with Todd Genno acting as the arena director. The host drum is Spirit Wind Singers of Thunder Bay, and the co-host drum is Stone Bridge Singers from Grand Portage, MN. The Female Elder is Angelina Ice, and the male Elder is Samuel Achneepineskum. Head dancers are Michael Esquega and Heather Banananish. For more information, contact Fred Ice at 807-629-9847.