Indigenous-led choir for newcomers in B.C. helps break barriers

A group of youth participate in VYC's Kindred program. VYC Kindred

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Filipina twin sisters Marah and Farah Alvarina’s mother worked tirelessly as a nurse for five years in order to make it possible for her daughters to have a better life in Canada.

The girls were finally able to join their mother in May 2020 and soon after took part in VYC Kindred, a choir program aimed at teaching young newcomers about Indigenous music traditions through drumming and singing.

But it does more than that — it also helps bridge cultural barriers and provides a good first introduction to Indigenous culture.

Led by St’at’imc vocalist, composer and music instructor Deanna Gestrin and Lil’wat composer, producer and traditional singer Russell Wallace, VYC Kindred launched in 2020 and is a free six-week program targeted at newcomer youth across Metro Vancouver.

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After a conversation between Gestrin and VYC founder Carrie Tennant, the program took off — in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a park. It has evolved since and is now hosted inside but the goal is the same: to provide a first introduction to music that is rooted in Indigenous culture.

“The idea is really to learn about Indigenous culture, to make cross-cultural connections and bridges between community,” said Gestrin. “It’s really about meeting other people who have the same lived experience of being a newcomer and who are really wanting to understand Indigenous culture.”

Not only does the program help make cross-cultural connections, but it also helps break down barriers.

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During one of their first sessions, Gestrin said they talked about why participants were there and most mentioned wanting to learn about Indigenous culture.

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“I think maybe originally when we started the program, we thought it would be a real music focus for people to come. And certainly there are a few who talk about wanting to sing, but many of them mentioned wanting to learn about Indigenous culture.”

Yvonne Su, assistant professor in the department of equity studies at York University in Toronto, said that “unfortunately, (Canada’s) really dark history with Indigenous people is international news.”

“So newcomers are aware of this but also don’t know how to engage because Indigenous issues for them are very different depending on what countries they come from,” she said.

“Creating a welcoming space is a good way to combat those perceptions and concerns in addition to addressing stereotypes.”

When the Alvarina sisters first arrived in Canada, they weren’t really aware of Indigenous culture.

“Where I came from we didn’t really talk about history of other countries and my knowledge came from the stereotypes I see on TV,” said Marah.

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“I didn’t have any specific knowledge about the Indigenous community, or their music, and (how) they live.”

“When we first got here I thought they had a different outlook. I thought they were secluded and separated from other Canadians,” adds Farah.

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The program helped their perception of Indigenous people and that’s thanks to Gestrin and Wallace.

“They were always teaching us something new, something fun,” said Marah. “Their confidence, it reflects the type of community that they come from. That’s how I realized that they live in such a good community and their music is so unique and amazing.”

Gestrin and Wallace’s mothers come from the same community so they share a Lil’wat Welcome Song, but besides that, they’re creating their own songs for the program.

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“It’s really that permissions piece, we want to be modelling that for other people because I think especially in today’s day and age, where we’re looking to go forward in a better way, it’s really important that we are aware or modelling what is helpful,” said Gestrin.

“This is really about experiencing a way to honour, honour our community, honour the people who came before us, our ancestors.”

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Besides friendship and cross-cultural connection, the sisters took with them life-long lessons.

“Deanna tells us that music is medicine, and I feel like that’s very true,” said Farah.

And they learned differently — it wasn’t from textbooks, social media or the news but from Indigenous people.

“It’s not just coming from facts and books but the experience itself,” said Farah.

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“It was a great stepping stone to feel more comfortable here in Canada and more connected with other people,” adds Marah.

Having completed the VYC Kindred program, the sisters are currently taking prerequisite college courses in hopes of becoming nurses just like their mom.

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