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Matters of the Heart

Mar 16, 2018

“Matters of the Heart” was a pilot community arts engagement project designed to improve relationships and the physical and mental wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth and adults in the community.

Where?

This project took place in Sioux Lookout, Ontario in March of 2017.   Sioux Lookout has a population of approximately 5,500 residents, and provides essential services to 30,000 people in northern remote First Peoples communities, thereby earning the title “Hub of the North”.

Watch "My Home is Sioux Lookout."                               

Who?

The pilot project began with conversations between project organizers in November 2015 and concluded in March 2017. The project was co-managed by the Sioux Hudson Entertainment Series, an incorporated, not-for-profit organization, managed by a volunteer board of directors and a community advisory committee.  The project was supported through Ontario Presents with funding provided by the Fresh Start Program, Department of Canadian Heritage

Why?

This purpose of this project was to better understand the “what, why and how” of community engagement - and to utilize these learnings to:

  • Increase sectoral understanding and activity around community engagement
  • Embrace cross sectoral partnerships that lead to improved outcomes
  • Find appropriate partners and facilitate the partnership development between performing arts presenters, community stakeholders, and artists.


Once community priorities were identified through the process described below, the primary goal of the project became to improve awareness of the connection between “movement,” physical and mental health, and healthy relationships, and to improve Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in the community so that:

  • People feel valued and welcomed
  • There is increased understanding, respect, dialogue, and feelings of safety, particularly among youth
  • There in an understanding of privelege


Process:

The complexity around community sensitivities, and findings from a community mapping and needs assessment report, required that this project use an iterative process and prepare partners in the project to be mindful of community cultural development guidelines that allow for time to ensure that broad and diverse community conversations, inputs, actions and ownership evolved through building trust.

The project framework was based on the four stages of community engagement practice: inform, involve, collaborate and empower.

Inform: The organizers undertook a community mapping exercise and a needs assessment to better understand how to work with community stakeholders outside the arts, and to question how an arts project and performance could contribute to improving community outcomes.

A two-part community consultation session with local stakeholders began in February 2016. When mapping the socio-cultural conditions, participants noted that the following conditions and assumptions exist in the community: 

  • Non-Indigenous community stereotyping Indigenous art forms
  • Underlying tensions around the residential school experience for many community members and their families
  • Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth do not participate in joint community activities
  • Token Indigenous involvement on arts committees and activities
  • Traditional medical approaches and methods not working to improve health and wellbeing of community
  • Health risks in the community is an Indigenous issue not a shared community challenge


Physical and mental health was identified as a community concern and priority and it was noted that this challenge is exacerbated because of the insufficient relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.  

Involve: Numerous community partners were involved in the project, including Pelican Falls First Nations High School, Sioux Lookout Public Library, the Mayor's Committee on Truth and Reconciliation, and Lac Seul First Nation.

Collaborate: On February 13, 2017 a collective of local arts, education and health sector professionals came together with youth at Pelican Falls First Nations High School (PFFNHS).  The group participated in a one-day workshop exploring physical activity (movement/dance) and the connection between physical and mental health and healthy relationships.

The activity was facilitated and presented by Blueprint for Life- “one of the world’s leading companies using HipHop as both a community development tool and as a model for alternative education and healing.”

View more of Blueprint for Life’s community work here

“… not just any group could have stepped into the fray and engaged people the way “Blueprint for Life” did.  Acknowledging the past, present, and future, are all part of the healing process and determine the future so this was not just another “activity” to kill time……but rather, an “invitation,” to understanding and healing.”
“To have that many service providers in one place at one time, listening, learning, dancing and laughing, is not the norm, and that is what happened.”
 

Empower: The hope in any community engagement project is that the community will be empowered to continue the process of using art to celebrate and explore. Conversations have continued in Sioux Lookout about the impact of this project and the potential for future projects. Feedback from Matters of the Heart included comments about an increased appreciation for the arts and the role that they can play in healing and mental health, a plan to use music in future teaching, and a hope for similar programs in the future.

Participants also shared many ideas for future work, including partnering between schools, offering this experience in Treaty locations, and building on service provider involvement to continue to explore different approaches to engage and work with youth and community members. “Whether it happens now or 3 years from now, seeds have been planted.”

“In any community engagement process, there is a necessary component where we reflect and listen to the feedback of others…  We can create the forums, invite the discussions, and help to plant the seeds, but we also have to be able to let go and see where the path takes us. The openness, trust and ability to explore what was possible vs. orchestrating an event (where our needs are more important than the collective process), is the fine line we all walk when we are dealing with community engagement.  It needs to be authentic and not something contrived or mandated.  This is the nature of community engagement.  It is hard to measure.  But that doesn’t mean it is less important than other endeavours where there is more of a “transactional,” component and a “measureable” outcome.”
 

In April 2017, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre came to the community as part of the Sioux Hudson Entertainment Series. Both high schools (QE and PFFNHS) were quick to sign on for the outreach activities, featuring a full Pow Wow Boot Camp session. Students were very interested and a last-minute delegation of 20 students was arranged to attend the evening performance. A teacher from PFFNHS connected with the Sioux Hudson Entertainment Series and discussed encouraging more students to attend the arts. While it is difficult to establish a direct link between the warm reception for Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and Matters of the Heart, there appears to be a link, particularly with the students at PFFNHS.

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