"A dynamo, a multi-talented, multi-disciplined artist," is how Brenda Norton, director of operations with DAREarts describes her late colleague Cathy Elliott, who was killed Sunday, when she was struck by a vehicle while out walking near her home in Alliston, Ont.
The composer, playwright and visual artist from the Sipekne'katik Mi'kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia ran Indigenous programs for the national charity which dares young people to use art to express their pain, their joy and their hopes for the future.
For over a decade, Elliott offered DAREarts programming across Canada and "was up for anything, any challenge that we threw at her she was eager to accept," said Norton.
However, Elliott was especially passionate about her visits to many remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario, where she would gently guide the young people as they wrote write songs, made documentaries and performed puppet shows.
She had a long relationship with Webequie First Nation, a fly-in community 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, collaborating on documentary called Fill My Hollow Bones which followed the first three years of DAREarts in the community.
I think Cathy found her voice coming from deep inside herself and I think she would like her legacy to be the same for every Indigenous kid across Canada - Marilyn Field, DAREarts founder
The philosophy was always "open hearts, open minds, not coming with directives as to what to do but simply being receptive to what we could see and enjoy and share with and from them," explained Marilyn Field, the founder of DAREarts.
The transformation in the young people over the three-year period was remarkable, said Norton.
"That first year the youth were guarded, their hoodies were up, they weren't making eye contact. At the end of those three years, because we did have a lot of the same kids come back through those three years, they're laughing and smiling and engaging and just strong individuals, their sense of self coming through," she said.
For Elliott, who was Mi'kmaq, her involvement in First Nations communities was a chance to rediscover her own Indigenous roots and learn more about her own ancestral culture.
In a 2016 interview with CBC Thunder Bay, Elliott expressed her joy at the relationships she had built in Webequie.
"I am thrilled, proud, excited, honoured and ecstatic. I get very emotional about this second home, watching the kids grow up. I am so proud, I'm like a grandmother to these kids," recalled Elliott at the time.
Elliott acted as a bridge, sharing Indigenous values and traditional culture wherever she taught, whether it was in a First Nations community, or the vibrant mix of backgrounds in an inner-city Toronto classroom, said Field, who believes her friend leaves behind a "huge" legacy.
"The word that comes to mind is voice. I think Cathy found her voice coming from deep inside herself and I think she would like her legacy to be the same for every Indigenous kid across Canada, not just to feel but to have their voice and know that it will be heard and be listened to."