First Nations students from remote B.C. community find voice through music

Courtesy: Clayton Grice, Tsay Keh Dene

The First Nations youth from one of the most remote communities in B.C. are learning to express themselves through music as part of a collaboration initiative that brings a mobile recording studio and video production team into schools and youth centres in native communities across Canada.

Tsay Keh Dene is a small northern B.C. community of a few hundred people, over seven hours away from the nearest city centre, that has struggled with isolation, relocation and the impact of residential schools among other social issues.

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Principal of Tsay Keh Dene School Clayton Grice says he recently came across n’We Jinan project, a non-profit initiative by Montreal-based music producers to connect kids to music and arts.

The producers travel around the country, recording music with First Nations youth to help them find their voice.

Grice says he reached out to the n’We Jinan team earlier this year, explaining that the kids at his school share a love for music, but there is no music program in the community for them to get involved with.

“Music is a huge part of the community as a whole,” Grice said. “The kids use it to be inspired, to pull away and support themselves if they are struggling.”

The n’We Jinan team travelled to the remote community in March, picking out a group of eight students to work with on several recordings.

Grice says, at first, they were not sure just how much the students would commit…”if we could get them to open up and come out of their shells.”

But to their surprise, the students showed up every single day and put in long hours with the n’We Jinan team.

“They were recording in the classroom, they were out filming in the territory…the kids were inspired to be there,” said Grice. “Attendance has never been one of our stronger suits at the school. It’s something we have been working on and improving on over the years, but it’s still a struggle. To get the kids engaged like that was really powerful.”

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With just seven days to complete the project, the students recorded three original songs and filmed a music video for one of them.

The students were tasked with writing their own lyrics to reflect their lives and the history of their community.

The Tsay Keh Dene band had to relocate several times and a valley had to be flooded to make space for the Williston Reservoir in the late 1960s, destroying a way of life and leaving a big impact on the community. Many of the elders were also victims of the residential school system — something that’s still echoing with all generations today.

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So the first song that the students produced called “Beyond the Rocks” became a reflection of the community’s struggles with isolation, relocation and residential school history, but also its efforts to start on a healing journey to gain its culture and language back.

WATCH: Students from Tsay Keh Dene Nation, B.C. took part in the N’we Jinan project. Their song “Beyond the Rocks” was one of the outcomes of the time spent recording and filming with the producers from Montreal.

Click to play video: 'N’we Jinan project comes to B.C.' N’we Jinan project comes to B.C.
N’we Jinan project comes to B.C – Apr 20, 2017

“The kids were becoming more and more comfortable and expressed the things that picked away at them and bothered them,” Grice said. “They talked about how they have dreams, but they need the community to back them and support them. They recognize that they might need a hand because the community is struggling.”

Grice says the project did wonders to the children’s’ self-confidence.

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“They have this new-found sense of pride,” he said. “In the six years I have been here, I saw a change over that week in those kids, which was absolutely amazing. They were walking taller, with their heads up — they were proud of their accomplishments, but also had a new view on who they were and where they stood in the community.”

Because of their success, the students have been invited to perform, for the first time ever, at the First Nations School Association Conference at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver on Friday.

Grice says they have only performed once before, but they been arduously practicing every day at the school.

They even squeezed in a special performance for the members of the community ahead of their big debut in Vancouver.

“Our gym was packed,” said Grice. “It was a huge success, which was a boost for the kids. They realized they could do this…For me the best part was watching members of the community watch the kids. There were definitely some tears in the crowd.”

Tsay Keh Dene students will also be performing as part of the n’We Jinan album launch at The Hall on 1739 Venables Street in Vancouver on Saturday.

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