As a rock band warmed up behind him at the Thunder Bay marina Saturday afternoon, Nolan Aysanabee showed off his dance moves to new friends at the back of the park.
Under his tracksuit, and a plastic lei he won at a local arcade, the 17-year-old wore a red T-shirt that was covered in signatures from those new friends.
“My fans,” he joked, as the group posed for selfies.
Mr. Aysanabee, from Sandy Lake First Nation, was part of a cohort of students visiting Thunder Bay from remote northern communities for Wake The Giant festivities, a cultural awareness campaign and concert to make Indigenous youth feel welcome and safe in the city.
It is a campaign that has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships, and has been widely embraced by the city as an example of its inclusivity efforts. But it has also been criticized as a Band-Aid solution to deep-rooted issues. The concerns are ones that highlight the difficult work of reconciliation, and the challenge – in a city where even best intentions can be divisive – of making meaningful change.
Because for years in Thunder Bay, Indigenous students have not felt welcome. The city has received national attention for this over the past few years, with multiple reviews concluding that the town and its police service are plagued with systemic racism.
Three years ago, an inquest was held into the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers who, between 2000 and 2011, died after travelling to Thunder Bay for high school. Six of those students went to Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School – the school Mr. Aysanabee is likely to attend next year.
It’s a daunting transition. To get their education, these students are forced leave their families behind and move to a city so much bigger than what they are used to that many are encountering streetlights for the first time. Because DFC doesn’t have a residence, the teens are billeted in boarding homes across the city and rely on public transit to get to and from class. In the community, they have faced racist slurs and discrimination by shop owners. It is dangerous.
But on Saturday evening, as drums and electric guitars blared in the background of Wake The Giant – and as he anxiously awaited the appearance of Ernest Monias, known as “Elvis of the North” – Mr. Aysanabee said his nerves had been eased.
“I feel excited about it now,” he said. “I met a lot of good people.”
Wake The Giant was started by a group of teachers at DFC, in response to a long to-do list of recommendations that came out of the inquest to improve the lives of the students in the city.
Sean Spenrath, DFC’s student success co-ordinator, says it was during a songwriting workshop with Toronto-based band July Talk a couple years back that the group realized how empowered the students were by music. The lyrics that the teens came up with – Mourning Keeps Coming Back, the song is called – were a jolting reminder of how much loss they had faced. Mr. Spenrath and his colleagues wanted to give them something to look forward to.
In Mr. Spenrath’s view, the Wake The Giant slogan refers to “opening the hearts and minds of people in Thunder Bay; waking up from the slumber we’ve been in for the last decade.”
It is of course, a nod to the Sleeping Giant rock formation, known to Ojibwa as Nanabijou or Spirit of the Deep Sea Water.
Today, the red-and-orange Wake The Giant logo can be spotted in the window of more than 300 local businesses in Thunder Bay – a decal that is meant to signal to students that that premises is a safe space for them; that they can go there for help, or shop freely without being followed around.
Jelena Psenicnik, who owns two restaurants in Thunder Bay, was happy to put the sticker in her windows. She is well aware of the racism in her city and was enthusiastic about the push for inclusivity. But months later, she sees the logo everywhere, and feels uneasy about how easy it was for her to get. She fears the gesture is too simple.
“Obviously anything that can be done to welcome the kids is fantastic. But [my concern is] whether it’s a bit too nominal,” she said. “It’s really a matter of making sure this is working, and that it’s not just some sort of ‘Hey, don’t worry Thunder Bay, we got it. We’ve got stickers all over town, so we’re good.’ ”
Sandi Boucher, a local motivational speaker and reconciliation expert, argues the campaign isn’t just potentially shallow, it’s dangerous. Without a proper vetting process for these businesses, she fears students could be misled to believe they are safe in a business premises where they are not.
“The only thing worse than not feeling welcome is being told you’re welcome and then it turns out you’re not,” she said. “It’s just too easy.”
She is similarly skeptical about the value of a concert. She found it offensive that it was scheduled on the same day as the Full Moon Memory Walk, an annual event to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. These types of scheduling conflicts happen “constantly,” she says. “It’s just a huge divide, and speaks to the basis of the intention in Thunder Bay.”
Elder John Gagnon, from Aroland First Nation, who has worked at DFC for three years, felt optimistic, watching the crowd Saturday, that it was a unifying experience (all DFC students, and those visiting the school from northern communities, got into the concert for free).
“This festival here, this is what the city of Thunder Bay needs. We need to get everybody on board, to get along. For the sake of the kids – for their safety,” he said. To him, Wake The Giant means “you’re waking up the people. Waking up the Giant. [We are] saying ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Michele Solomon, a councillor at Fort William First Nation who spoke on behalf of Chief Peter Collins at the concert, agrees.
“Anything we can do to help young people feel better and thrive, I can get behind that," she told the crowd.
For Lewis Chapman, Saturday’s event wasn’t only the first big concert he attended, it was also his first big performance. The 18-year-old, from Big Trout Lake, is in his second year at DFC and has been playing guitar for five years. When he learned that he and his classmates would have the opportunity to join July Talk on stage to play the song the band wrote with the students, he thought it was a “pretty cool opportunity.”
And as thousands of people in the audience cheered them on, he couldn’t help but beam.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. As a young Indigenous man, he has found Thunder Bay to be “quite dangerous.”
But as Mr. Chapman took in the festivities with his girlfriend, he felt hopeful that it might ease some of that intimidation for new students in the future.
“It’s a cool event, I think it’ll be awesome," he said. “Maybe this will warm [the new students] up to it.”
Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, has seen hundreds of students graduate. But she has also been to too many funerals for students. On stage on Saturday, she spoke of the hardships the students face in getting their high-school education. Out of the 24 First Nations communities she represents, only two have schools that go to Grade 12. Everyone else must travel to the city.
Ms. Kejick also addressed the criticism that the campaign has faced.
“I’ve heard comments from some people saying, ‘Why do we have three white people running around the city slapping up logos on businesses?’ " she said. “Well, why does it always have to be us brown people – First Nations people – that have to be the first ones to try to reconcile? If we’re going to make change, we have to do it together.”
Mr. Spenrath acknowledges that after the success of Wake The Giant, and the enormous amount of support it has received, he and his colleagues have a platform and a responsibility now. Initially, they planned to use any funds raised toward a much-needed new school and residence. But concerned that this could deter the federal government from putting up that cash, they decided instead to put it towards continuing the awareness campaign.
“We want to take the next year here to really focus on the logo project,” he said, adding that they will be establishing a cultural sensitivity training package for participants moving forward.
“Our biggest goal now is to parlay [these connections] into potential part-time jobs for the kids,” Mr. Spenrath said. “We want to make this place feel like home.”