Fort Smith play resonates with youth of Fort Chipewyan

Fort Smith play resonates with youth of Fort Chipewyan
Shawn Tourangaeu, left, and Isabella Bourque are two of the leads in Normal, a coming of age play written and produced by PWK high school students in Fort Smith.Photo: Dali Carmichael.

It’s been a tough year for the community of Fort Chipewyan, especially for its youth.

After a 13 year-old girl committed suicide in December 2014, residents of the small northern Alberta town say they have been dealing with escalated levels of bullying, depression and suicide attempts, mostly among their youngest demographic.

Since the devastating loss occurred, the community has been rallying together to try and improve conditions for their students. Problems with bullying and parental engagement are addressed at monthly meetings of the Athabasca Delta Community School (ADCS) PTA, but low attendance has made the process an uphill battle.

Leslie Wiltzen, who hails from Fort Chip but currently calls Fort Smith home, knew this information as his son Daniel helped write and perform the original play Normal with his classmates in the PWK high school drama club. The production covers many of the issues faced by Fort Chipewyan from a modern-day youth perspective, and so he thought it would be beneficial if the students took their show south.

The crew headed to Fort Chip and, as part of their monthly meeting, the PTA organized two showings of the play, one for students on May 6 and one for parents at their meeting on May 7.

“The last community meeting they’d had about a week or so before we got there had ended on a really poor note. People were just frustrated and wanted to point fingers,” said Kelsey Smith, the PWK teacher who runs the drama club. “Les Wiltzen, who is the parent of one of my actors, thought, hey, our play touches on a lot of those themes and what he wanted us to do was come perform it for the school and perform it as part of a follow-up community meeting. He wanted to use it to kind of set the tone for some productive discussion around what the community could do.”

Feedback about the play and how it relates to Fort Chip has been very positive, Smith said.

“I had inadvertently met the lady whose daughter had committed suicide and had spoken to her several times and hadn’t realized,” Smith said. “She wrote us a really nice thank-you card and said thanks for talking about it and coming to Chip. She wasn’t sure whether or not she should attend the show, but she did in the end.”

“The kids were very touched by the play, the parents were very touched by the play, hopefully they opened up some eyes because even myself, it almost made me cry,” said Kendrick Cardinal, cultural coordinator at ADCS and treasurer for the PTA. “I went through the same things that those kids were going through, and it really touched a soft spot in my heart. I’m very grateful that those kids came up from PWK.”

“Our main issue is the bullying, it’s the lack of communication and how basically kids will interpret conversations between themselves as opposed to how adults may interpret them,” said Jenny Piche, vice chair of the PTA. “I think it was touching, it hit home, because they were able to relate. It was well attended, which means they were actually listening.”

The play is only the latest in a series of strategies used to talk about teen issues in the community. In March, the school held a three-day wellness conference where elders from outside communities visited and gave the kids and their parents coping and healing strategies, covering everything from smudging, drumming and activities on the land.

Recently, the PTA has also appealed to employers in the region to implement new company policies to encourage parental involvement at the meetings. They are asking for community members to be excused from work for a set amount of time on the PTA meeting days without being docked any pay. They are also working on after-school programming, like culture camps and sporting events, to get students and parents taking part in healthy, social activities.

Already, there has been a noticeable change in some of the youths’ demeanours.

“There is more of a calmness about them knowing that people are actually listening,” Piche said. “It’s not just within the walls of the schools, they notice the community is listening.”

Touring the North with Normal

When the South Slave Divisional Education Council learned that PWK would be taking Normal on the road, the board suggested sending the students to other communities in the South Slave as well.

On May 19, the crew will be showing their play in Hay River at Diamond Jenness school at 10:45 a.m. and in Fort Resolution at 2:30 p.m.

“I think it’s valuable for the community to see the youth perspective, the bullying and the social media back and forth that happens,” Smith said.

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