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Pikangikum resident and Grade 12 student Lilly Kejick watches the swirl of activity on the Dakota Nation Winterfest Wacipi dance floor on Feb. 1. She was one of 15 students attending the event for the first time to learn the protocols of a traditional powwow. Lilly Kejick, a Grade 12 student from Pikangikum, Ont., sits in a set of bleachers in the Keystone Centre’s Manitoba Room to get a high-angle view of the opening of the 2019 Dakota Nation Winterfest Wacipi (powwow).

Drummers pound their instruments and sing while hundreds of dancers dressed in their bright, feathered regalia swirl in a vibrating spiral to begin the largest Indigenous celebration on Brandon’s annual calendar.

Kejick is one of 15 high school students who travelled more than 10 hours to Brandon just for this occasion. She and her schoolmates are attempting to bring pow wow tradition back to Pikangikum in an effort to stem a dramatic substance abuse and suicide rate in their town. This is their first visit to Winterfest.

“Tonight, they are just here to observe, but tomorrow, they will put on their outfits and take part in the dance,” said Narcise Kakegabon, a teacher with Project Journey, a program that empowers at-risk, Indigenous youth to overcome daily challenges. “This isn’t something they’ve had the opportunity to do before; to participate in an event this big.”

About 1000 students attend Pikangikum’s Eenchokay Burnstick School from Kindergarten to Grade 12. The community has struggled with various social issues through the past 20 years, including substantial substance abuse and one of the highest rates of suicide in Canada.

The redevelopment of the community’s powwow celebration is an initiative taken on by the students, led by Kejick, chief of her school’s student council, alongside community and educational leaders. Their intent is to instil traditional beliefs and values in their school and throughout their community to turn the page on the community’s troubled history of mental health and substance abuse issues.

“We want to bring back what we’re learning right now to the community; bring back our culture to the community,” the first-year dancer said. “We work with our elders to ensure we get everything necessary for our own powwow. I feel pretty proud of what we’re doing. We tried proposing a powwow at home last year, but it didn’t go as well. This year, we’re really determined to make it happen.”

The initiative will climax this weekend when the community hosts its first home-town pow wow in many years. Kakegabon said the students are focused on obtaining the right knowledge to make their own event a success.

“They’re kids who are working hard with what they have available to them,” he said. “They are taking the initiative to do these traditional activities.”

Considering Pikangikum is a fly-in community during the summer months, the Winterfest was an opportunity to make the trip by vehicle now that the Northern Ontario ice-roads can be traversed.

“There are a lot of programs for the students at the school,” Kakegabon said. “Some of them have started drumming and dancing and we thought coming here to see it first hand would be a good experience.”

Pikangikum is located about 100 kilometers north of Red Lake, Ont. and has a population of about 2200 residents.

Besides social concerns among its population, the remote, north western Ontario community has also struggled with water quality issues. In 2017, the federal government set aside $60 million for the First Nation to improve its power grid. One of the issues pertaining to the drinking water quality was the lack energy to effectively run the community’s water system.

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