Eight youth from across northwestern Ontario expanded their creative writing skills at a workshop in Winnipeg on April 13.
The writing workshop brought together third and fourth generation residential school survivors, in hopes of helping them find their inner voice as writers.
Cheryl Suggashie of Pikangikum First Nation attended the workshop with youth from Batchewana, Garden River and Pays Plat First Nations.
Suggashie said one of her favourite parts of the weekend was when she was picked up at the airport by Nina Wilson, one of the original Idle No More founders.
“My jaw literally dropped and my heart just sunk into my stomach,” Suggashie said of meeting Wilson.
Wilson joined the participants at a late dinner at Renate Eigenbrod’s home where they engaged in a sharing circle. Wilson told the youth she was very proud of them and what they were about to start. She emphasized the importance of healing from the trauma of residential school and working together. Eigenbrod, professor and head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, helped create the workshop with Suggashie.
Eigenbrod garnered help from members of the local Aboriginal Writers Collective (AWC).
The group met for breakfast at Neechi Commons, which is a community business complex being developed in the North End of Winnipeg to promote neighbourhood revitalization and to provide economic opportunities for Aboriginal youth who live in the area.
Eigenbrod wanted to have the event at Neechi Commons because she wanted the theme of the weekend to be “writing for change in a place of change.”
“I hope this workshop will help you by making you think about your creativity in different ways to cope with challenges in your life,” Eigenbrod told the participants over breakfast.
“And I hope it also helps you create the change you want to make in your families and your communities.”
After breakfast, the youth engaged in creative writing workshops with Katherena Vermette and David Robertson (AWC members).
“The best part of writing workshops is to just get you thinking about those words and really process your experiences,” Vermette said.
Vermette, a poet, had the youth write whatever they wanted non-stop for five minutes as a warm up exercise. The group was given a chance to share what they came up with at the end, though most passed on the opportunity.
Robertson engaged the participants in an activity he called “The Waiting Room.”
“Describe someone waiting, the point is to not spell things out for people, to show them instead of telling them,” Robertson said. He said that he felt description and imagery helps maintain momentum in stories and keeps it moving forward.
Vermette and Robertson also shared writing tips with the group, which included taking voice memos with an iPhone, and also keeping a notepad handy in case an idea should come to mind.
“You never know when an idea is going to come,” Robertson said. “Sometimes it comes to you at the oddest times.”
Robertson, a graphic novelist, agreed to be a part of the workshop because he likes to work with Indigenous youth.
“I like trying to inspire them to create and to tell stories because I think that’s where we need to be headed as a people, by reclaiming our stories. A lot of our history has been told through European perspective,” he said
Vermette agreed with Robertson, and added that she loves to work with novice writers.
“I really love that process of getting them to write something and be surprised that they wrote it,” she said. “I am really excited for this generation that is coming up.”
Both Vermette and Robertson were impressed with the writing that the youth came up with, considering it was the first time any of them had tried creative writing.
“Hopefully it plants a big seed for them to start writing more and creating more,” Robertson said.
Amy Boyer, one of the participants from Batchewana who does a lot of business-style writing and reports, felt that the workshop was “really liberating.” She liked that she was able to write something of her own creation.
In the afternoon, AWC member and established poet Rosanna Deerchild took the group on a walk through the neighbourhood to take in the sights and sounds. She instructed the youth to think about what they experienced on the walk, and she gave them 20 minutes to write a poem. She informed them ahead of time that everyone would share their work at the end.
“This is a respectful place, a loving place. We are going to be fearless today,” Deerchild said. “To be writers, you must write. To be storytellers, you must tell your story. The poem doesn’t live until you give it breath. You must speak it out loud. You can’t give that gift to someone unless you speak it out loud.”
Duncan Mercredi, established poet and storyteller, also worked with the youth during the afternoon with Deerchild. Shayla Elizabeth, another poet from the AWC, gave tips on body language and reciting poetry live.
Catriona Dooley, a local participant from Winnipeg, said that Mercredi “really got us to think about how our minds can perceive things differently and also gave pointers on our reading styles. I don’t think I have read a poem out loud of my own since middle school.”
Matt Goodchild, a participant from Pays Plat, said that he had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to come to the workshop.
“But when I got there, I started to think more of why I had the opportunity,” Goodchild said.
“I realized it was a personal lesson in my life, it was an experience of learning something new among some incredible people from different areas.”
Batchewana participant Theodore Syrette said he felt that the experience gave him inspiration to try creative writing again. “Being around inspiring, emerging, and professional Indigenous writers lifted my spirits knowing that our stories and the legacies of our people will continue on for future generations.”
Kassidy Armstrong, a youth from Garden River FN, said she too felt inspired by the weekend and the people she met. “The entire weekend was a great experience,” Armstrong said. She is very proud of the fact that she shared vocally what she had written, an act which she described as “nerve-racking.”
“But it is important to have your voice heard,” Armstrong added.
The workshop concluded with an open mic night that was open to the general public. It was attended by about 40 people, including many local artists and poets. Al Hunter, a published poet from Rainy River First Nation, recited three of his poems – one which was sexual in nature.
“It’s a part of the healing process, to see sex and sexual matters as a healthy part of our lives,” Hunter said after his readings. “Especially as Anishinaabe people, we have been through so much. We lost three or four generations of affectionate, loving, empathetic parents. It is up to us to work with our own children, to let them know how much we care.
Kiss them up. Love them every day.”
The youth were then given a chance to read their work. Syrette and Metis participant Rebecca Beaulne-Stuebing shared the poems they wrote in the afternoon workshops.
“I have never been prouder,” Suggashie said of the two. “They didn’t know they were reading in front of national authors, writers, and artists until it was all over,” she laughed.
“I am so happy these youths got to experience it,” Suggashie said.
The night was wrapped up by a reading from another well-known author, Marie Annharte Baker, who left the audience in stitches with her comedic reading.
Goodchild said he hopes that the workshop will continue to happen in the future.
“I hope that other youth will have the opportunity to attend and empower themselves through creative writing, and effectively finding their voice to share with thoughts and opinions,” Goodchild said.
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