A summer of discovery
MNO’s Summer Youth Cultural Program
This summer, 15 Métis youth embarked on a journey of self-discovery as they joined the Métis Nation of Ontario’s (MNO) Summer Youth Cultural Program (SYCP).
Designed to strengthen and share Métis culture and history, SYCP is a MNO community based initiative comprised of students who deliver Métis inspired programs across Ontario through experiential education and a “hands on, minds on” approach. This summer’s project focused on creating greater awareness on the contributions of Métis during the War of 1812 through presentations, re-enactments and other events.
Gaining an experience that will last a lifetime, youth spent the summer connecting to their roots, sharing Métis heritage and traditions with the outside world, and immersing themselves in all things Métis.
Learning about what it means to be Métis
Before the students could deliver the programs, they first took part in two weeks of comprehensive training on Métis heritage.
The 15 interpreters included students who had participated in previous years and some who were joining for the first time. For their training, the group first came together at the MNO office in Midland and then reunited at Old Fort William, a former North West Company post near Thunder Bay, to begin their second week of training. The second week required full immersion into the Métis way of life. Upon arrival, students were provided with traditional Métis attire including strap dresses for the women and corduroy pants and linen shirts for the men.
“It was quickly noted that the boys looked more like pirates than voyageurs, and those of us who had never worn strap dresses were drowning in fabric,” said interpreter and Lakehead University student Lucy Fowler.
The training, provided by MNO staff members, Chris McLeod, Métis Summer Student Supervisor and Scott Carpenter, Manager of Projects and Partnerships, focused on re-enactments and character development. MNO Senator Bob McKay and MNO Manager of Way of Life Framework Brian Tucker assisted with training in Thunder Bay as well as Ruth Quesnelle in Midland.
While at Old Fort William, the interpreters were provided a character to portray during their stay. They would also have to bring these characters to life during future re-enactments.
“We were able to portray our own ancestors,” explained first-time interpreter Brianne Madonna, a Linguistics and Psychology student at the University of Ottawa. “Before this, I never identified as Métis because I didn’t know what it meant. The character development really helped me understand and connect to my roots.”
Workshops were held on everything from muskets and cannons to wild edibles and of course MNO programs and governance, Métis history and culture, finger weaving, beading, embroidery, fire making with steel and flint, cooking, tinsmithing and blacksmithing as well as War of 1812 training.
“During the tin and blacksmithing training each student made a nail and some were as big as a tent peg,” explained Scott Carpenter. “We needed a pretty big piece of wood to hammer that into.”
The youth really enjoyed the training. First-time interpreter and Confederation College marketing student Jonathon Falvo said, “I really enjoyed the training, especially the arts although I’m not very good at it so during re-enactments I stuck to sanding and chopping wood.”
Upon completion of the training, students took on their new role as a Summer Youth Cultural Interpreter. Working out of MNO regional offices in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Midland, SYCP Interpreters developed regional programs for summer camps, retirement homes, schools and other community organizations. Regional programs included information on the Métis Way of Life (WOLF), the fur trade, Métis involvement in the War of 1812 and many hands-on cultural activities such as finger weaving and beading.
“I love interpreting and relaying to other people what it means to be Métis,” said returning interpreter and Sault College student Nicki Doucette. “A few years ago I didn’t know that I was Métis but had friends who were and had completed this program. I used to wish I was Métis just so I could be part of the experience, then one day my mom told me that I actually am Métis- I signed up right away.”
Getting back to basics
A large focus of SYCP this year was to increase awareness of the Métis involvement in the War of 1812 and this was done largely through re-enactments.
“My favorite part of this whole experience is the re-enactment events,” said first-time interpreter and Lakehead University student Cameron Hartman. “We really get to relish in the experience- it’s life changing.”
This year provided a unique opportunity as the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations took place across the province providing SYCP interpreters the chance to attend the events and re-enact what life was like for Métis people during the war.
“It is my third year being part of this program and every year I learn a different aspect about being Métis. This time it was our involvement in the War of 1812,” said Melody Chislett-Morris who is also an MNO Infinite Reach Facilitator for Sault Ste. Marie College. “I think my favourite part of the whole experience is really learning how to cohabitate with my fellow youth – it’s something I never did in college.”
Among the events the interpreters attended over the summer were the Sault Ste. Marie History Fest/War of 1812/Tall Ships, the Siege of Fort Erie, Wasaga Under Siege, and the 2013 International Canoe Federation Junior and Under 23 Canoe Sprint World Championships opening ceremonies.
"Because on a day to day basis our teams are stationed in different cities, the re-enactments feel like a homecoming. We become one big family,” said Wilfred Laurier University student Katelyn LaCroix.
Each event featured a Métis encampment complete with 16 canvas tents, two voyageur canoes and the SYCP interpreters living and working in period outfits. Interpreters engaged with other re-enactors and the public to bring the Métis involvement in the War of 1812 to life while also educating others about Métis traditions and heritage.
“A few of us may have fallen too far into our characters,” explained Lucy Fowler. “Justin, one of our voyageurs, spotted the American soldiers in while we were in Sault Ste. Marie and planned his attack, with only wooden spoons and replicated muskets in his weaponry. Luckily for the Americans, we were expected on stage before he could follow through.”
Some activities that took place during the re-enactments, many of which were new to the interpreters, included jigging to the musical talents of Métis fiddler and University of Waterloo student Alicia Blore, Métis Voyageur games, traditional cooking and the re-creation of a Métis voyageur encampment.
The presentations of Métis traditional dance were always a popular show and drew in large crowds. Those watching would clap along with the live fiddle music and try to take as many pictures as possible. Some even joined in. Returning female interpreters expressed how pleased they were with the number of male students this year. This meant they did not have to take on the male dancing role, although a few still did.
Living with historical accuracy isn’t always the easiest, even with something as simple as making food. A stickler for historical accuracy, Métis historian Scott Carpenter requires the students to only use food that the Voyageurs would have had access to in 1812. The students were hoping to improve the taste of their stew by adding celery but Scott pointed out that it would not have been historically accurate, so, the stew turned out rather bland.
The War of 1812 events offered an excellent opportunity for SYCP interpreters to learn from many other experienced re-enactors at the events. One example of this was chopping wood for the fire. While on Nancy Island during the Siege of Wasaga, one of the male interpreters was having a bit of trouble chopping wood as it was something he had never done before. A local re-enactor noticed this and offered some assistance; he even provided a lesson to the students. Up next to the block was Nicki Doucette, she easily chopped the wood without any assistance. The other re-enactor was very impressed.
The encampment aspect of the program taught the students many things they didn’t know before and helped them connect with nature.
“There are so many things I have never done before that I am experiencing through this program, like starting a fire from scratch and really getting back to the basics,” explained Brianne Madonna.
Sleeping in a tent was also new to many of the students. Jonathon Falvo didn’t realize how cold summer nights could feel. But no matter the weather, the students stuck it out; they even camped through severe thunderstorms while in Sault Ste. Marie.
“During the re-enactments we became a small community, we have to live and rely on one another,” said returning interpreter and digital film production student Justine Chalykoff. “Being from a big city it was definitely a new experience for me.”
By camping, the students began to appreciate common necessities that we take for granted in everyday life, like the luxury of a shower.
“Luckily there were nearby bodies of water so nobody stunk up the camp,” laughed Johnathon Falvo.
The SYCP interpreters concluded their summer by attending the MNO 20th Annual General Assembly (AGA) where they set up a cultural display that included historic Métis artifacts such as weapons, clothing and furs.
During the AGA the students provided entertainment during the 20th Anniversary Dinner Theatre, Dance and Feast. Practicing together for the three nights prior, the students created their own Métis inspired lyrics to go along with the popular hits “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Low” by Flo Rida.
“The performance was a little embarrassing,” said Katelyn La- Croix, “but it made the audience laugh and that’s what it is all about.”
“It was good getting everyone together dancing, it really seemed like everyone enjoyed the performance,” added Johnathon Falvo.
Students spent their last day together encamped at the AGA cultural event on Victoria Island. The crowd joined them in Métis games, arts and traditional dance. It was a great way to end the summer before each journeyed back to their homes to begin a new school year with not only a different perspective of the world around them, but also on who they are.
When asked about his overall experience, Lakehead University student Will Stolz said, “Being involved in this program opened my eyes to the culture within my family. It is way more than a job; getting paid is just a bonus.”