Saskatoon program helps Indigenous kids get 'fire lit inside'

An after-school program in Saskatoon is combining Indigenous culture with theatre and performance, and for some participants — giving a sense of pride and changing their lives.

Indigenous Ensemble combines culture with performance with positive results

Saskatoon Indigenous Ensemble performing for a live audience. (SPS Indigenous Ensemble Facebook)

An after-school program in Saskatoon is combining Indigenous culture with theatre and performance, and for some participants, giving them a sense of pride and changing their lives.

When Bluejay Linklater was in Grade 8, he was repeatedly sent to the principal's office and getting into arguments.

"I use to struggle in school, in Grade 8, a lot because I didn't get along with my teacher at all," said Linklater from Saskatoon.

"Everyday it used to be a struggle."

'A much different experience'

Even though it may not have affected his marks at the time, it still didn't make him feel good about himself.

Now a Grade 9 student at Mount Royal Collegiate in Saskatoon, school is a much different experience for Linklater, 14, thanks in part to an after-school Indigenous theatre program offered by Saskatoon Public Schools.The program is called Indigenous Ensemble.

Started in 2014-2015 school year, the after-school program helps students learn about Indigenous cultures.  It is made up of emerging musicians, singers, dancers and storytellers from Grade 7 to 12.
Saskatoon Indigenous Ensemble performers preparing to go on stage. (SPS Indigenous Ensemble Facebook. )

The ensemble group get to hone their artistic skills under experienced performers. Workshops are also offered to the ensemble including Métis fiddler and guitar, powwow dancing, regalia making to production and script development.

Linklater joined the ensemble when he was 12 years old and in Grade 7.

"Everyday I try to get through the day as quick as I can so I can get to the ensemble program," said Linklater.

Developing pride

A non-credit course, the extracurricular program open to all students across the division.The purpose of the ensemble is to develop pride and a sense of self.

"This is helping our kids that kinda idle around the classroom, around the school and they don't really have anything that affirms who and what they are in the school," says Don Speidel, the cultural resource liaison coordinator with the division.

Speidel has been instrumental in the ensemble program, along with people from the community who are known as professional powwow dancers, singers, knowledge keepers, and Elders.  

Indigenous worldviews have also been instrumental in the program. Many nations are acknowledged throughout the program such as Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cree, Saulteaux, Dene Métis people.

​Building bridges

Speidel says the program is also helping students get hooked back into school, and building bridges with schools and Indigenous students and families.

Linklater's mother is one of them.

Teedly Linklater is a single mother to four, all of her children are in the Indigenous Ensemble program.

"So many people benefit from my kids," says Teedly referring to her son Linklater, who is now helping other students learn about Indigenous culture and powwow dance.

Teedly said it helps students who were apprehended by child family services and who may not have had the opportunity to learn about their culture.

"Then they see other kids dancing and they get that fire lit inside."

​Growing group

The ensemble recently performed in front of 1,200 students in just one month.

The ensemble group now has 40 youth registered.

"I love it that we get to teach new kids everyday how to dance. We get their spirits up to join our crew," says Linklater.

"Because every year we have new kids."

Linklater said he is ecstatic the school division offers this program.

"I love it, I am so glad that they did it finally."

The Indigenous Ensemble program is becoming widely recognized within the division. While it is rumoured the program will become accredited, when asked, the school division said it will not be.  


Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige