Rosie Koostachin has seen first hand the power of dance. Since 2001 she has been teaching powwow dancing at the school gymnasium in Attawapiskat First Nation, Ont., and encouraging the youth to live healthy lifestyles.
"It's troubled kids that come into the gym," said Koostachin.
"I never turn them away, I take them inside, they come and sit down and listen [and watch]."
She never forces the kids to dance, because she knows several of them lack the confidence needed to perform in front of their peers.
"These kids that come in … they're so self-conscious, their self-esteem is really really low," said Koostachin.
"You can't even look them in the eye, they look down and they have these hoodies, everybody wears hoodies in Attawapiskat."
But when the kids do start to dance, it completely transforms them, and as Koostachin says, "they start to pull away the hoodie."
Powwow and traditional teachings
What's unique about Koostachin's powwow class is the attention she gives to the traditional teachings of the seven grandfathers, which informs the youth how to have positive relationships founded on concepts such as love, respect and honesty.
Koostachin says when she was going through her own personal healing, the teachings helped her out. And having grown up in Attawapiskat, she knows how hard it can be for youth living in the remote community.
"That's what we were teaching at the powwow practice, how to use [the teachings] everywhere, at home too… they just don't come into dance."
Years of neglect
The kids in the community are thirsty for organized activities such as ball hockey and basketball, but Koostachin says what is missing is support from community members.
Several boys that attend her powwow class also want to learn how to drum, but Koostachin has a hard time getting drummers to commit to the class.
"I was always sad going out of the gym because I know I'm going to come home to nothing at my house. I'd be hungry," said Koostachin. - Rosie Koostachin, powwow dance instructor
"[The drummers] have their own personal issues at home… they have addiction problems," said Koostachin, which she says is caused by years of intergenerational trauma from isolation and residential school.
Koostachin recalls feeling neglected as a child — an experience she says is similar to what kids are going through today.
When she was young there was a Brownies program offered by a group of elders at the school gymnasium. She loved attending the program, because it gave her an opportunity to leave her house.
"I was always sad going out of the gym because I know I'm going to come home to nothing at my house. I'd be hungry," said Koostachin.
"Maybe that's why I always wanted to help out, because the gym was a centre where people could find refuge, to be safe."
Koostachin says the legacy of residential school continues to impact the community, and she believes it was at school that her mother lost her ability to love.
"Residential school took the love out of her," said Koostachin.
"To this day she can't even say I love you. That hurt me for a long time, but I'm not mad at my mom."
Additional supports needed
One of the issues that plagues Attawapiskat is drug addiction, but as Koostachin points out, there aren't addiction services available in the community.
There is a local healing lodge and treatment centre on the outskirts of the community but when the funding ran out the program closed its doors.
After seeing how attending a suboxone program in another northern Ontario community helped her brother-in-law turn his life around, Koostachin believes a similar program would help Attawapiskat.
Alvin Beardy, former chief of Sachigo Lake First Nation, Ont., knows first hand how a treatment program can help turn a community around. He was instrumental in introducing a suboxone program in his community.
"In 2009 we noticed that prescription drug abuse was going up and there was so much negative things happening in the community, such as vandalism among other things," said Beardy.
After researching potential options for treatment programs, the community settled on a suboxone program, which was partially funded by Health Canada.
But because of the high demand for the program, the community has dipped into their own accounts to ensure it remains up and running.
'... To move forward into the future, the community needs to help the people to carry this community forward." - Alvin Beardy, Sachigo Lake First Nation
"The community picks up the rest of the tab, like we built a 1.1 million dollar facility, that came out of the community funds, from the economic development program," said Beardy.
"I believe it is a wise investment, I mean if we need to move forward into the future, the community needs to help the people to carry this community forward."
Since the program was introduced, Beardy says vandalism has gone down, and the youth are more involved in the community.
'There is hope'
Despite the years of suffering, Koostachin says her community is always able to bounce back.
"There is hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Koostachin.
"We've been through a lot already… [but] we always come together and we pray together."