Now Or Never

Northern Saskatchewan community using traditional fiddling to prepare youth for future

Principal Darryl Flett had a wake up moment after a number of youth died by suicide in 2016. Now fiddles are a part of connecting local youth to their culture.

Principal Darryl Flett had a wake up moment after a number of local youth died by suicide in 2016

Max McLeod is one of the people learning how to fiddle in Stanley Mission, Sask. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

In the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan, the silence of a quiet community is broken by the squeaky sounds of beginner fiddle players. 

A group of young students sit in a small multi-purpose room with a fiddle on each of their shoulders. Some have sponges to make it more comfortable and all have tape around the fiddle's neck, marking where their fingers should go. 

The students are learning how to play the fiddle at the Keethanow Elementary School on the Amachewespimawin First Nation — known as Stanley Mission — located about 500 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. 

Students at the Keethanow Elementary School are learning how to fiddle to connect to their culture. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

The community is filled with joy and laughter, but it's also marked by past tragedies. Now, members are working to overcome the past and engage the students — with fiddling. 

Now, after only a few months, the students are preparing to take the stage for a traditional fiddling night and show the community what they've learned. 

Ralph Opitokew teaches at the chalkboard at the Keethanow Elementary School. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

Ralph Opikokew is from the Canoe Lake First Nation and started playing in 1987. He remembers a time when fiddle players were dominant at every wedding, gathering and event in the area. 

Fiddling, it's a traditional instrument everywhere in the north, starting from way back in the day from the Metis people.- Darryl Flett

However, there was a disconnect between the generations. Younger people weren't learning the older songs or how to fiddle. 

"So we have to redo this again, like redo this for the younger groups. Now to get the pattern dances, go on old time dances and get more fiddle players involved," Opikokew said. 

Kiersten McLeod is in Grade 4 and has started to learn how to play the fiddle. She's a curious student with many questions about everything the instructors mention. 

A student at the Keethanow Elementary School plays on one of the fiddles. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

"It's really classy, it's very classic," Kiersten said. "I like it a lot … It makes me happy because it has a squeaky sound and I love it."

Fiddling engages kids in a different way than other sports or extra curricular activities and access to music gives them a new means of expression through singing and playing, Keethanow Elementary School principal Darryl Flett said. 

"Fiddling, it's a traditional instrument everywhere in the north, starting from way back in the day from the Metis people," Flett said. 

However, it wasn't being taught in the community. Older fiddlers picked it up by ear and it can be difficult to formally teach people without being formally taught themselves, Flett said. Now, he hears it everyday down the hall. 

"It's inspiring and it goes to show that kids are experimenting and trying it out and not shy to try," Flett said. "Music is just a way of a way of thinking or a way of being free to do whatever you want … that's a really good sign that kids are engaging in and trying it."

Past trauma marks community initiatives 

In everything he does, Flett thinks about his students. He had a wake up call in 2016 after a suicide crisis hit communities in northern Saskatchewan.

"It was a big shock with the amount of people that were getting involved in the suicides," Flett said. 

Within a few months in 2016, six children between the age of 10 and 14 from La Ronge, Stanley Mission, Deschambault Lake and Makwa Sahgaiehcan died by suicide. At the time it was highly publicized, and the attempts haven't stopped. 

Between 2016 and April of 2020, the Saskatchewan Coroner's Service reported 820 deaths by suicide — not including medically assisted deaths.

"As an educator, you got to do something. It's not just always talking to a counselor … It's more expressive. It's more in depth."

One of the initiatives Flett decided to try was a music program. Fleet partnered with the Saskatchewan Cultural Exchange and a Saskatchewan musician named Eliza Doyle. Doyle first spent time teaching other instruments in the community in January, 2019 then started bringing in fiddle-specific teachers in October, 2019. 

The community received a grant to buy fiddles for the community and people of Saskatchewan also donated instruments. 

Darryl Fletts is the Principal of the Keethanow Elementary School in Stanley Mission, Sask. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

Mitchell Dureault and Ralph Opikokew were the first two fiddle instructors brought in by the Saskatchewan Cultural Exchange and Doyle to teach in the community.

Opikokew said he knows that fiddling can help young people because it helped him. 

"When I was [young] I used to take up my fiddle and play … I forgot what stressed me out," Opikokew said. "The fiddle listens to me and I find that it's therapeutic."

The halls of the small elementary school on the remote First Nation are now abuzz with the sounds of fiddles being played.

"I wanted to learn how to fiddle because of my grandpa," Max McLeod said. 

He's the grandson of a local fiddling icon, Antoine McLeod. Max said he thinks Antoine is proud of him for learning how to play and he hopes to learn a few new songs. 

"Music is important to me because I sort of liked music from the start and also my whole family's into it," Max said. "I feel good … Feel proud of myself."

Max is part of the new generation learning old techniques. The older generation is slowly passing on. Now, Antoine is one of the few remaining after the community lost an elder in 2019. 

"I hope it picks up because it's something I grew up with and I hate to see it go. Fiddling has been around since the village was here," McLeod said. "Since the first house was here."

To hold a fiddle in front of a crowd is a tremendous accomplishment.- Ralph Opikokew

Opikokew said not all students may choose to stay with the fiddle, but that having these learning experiences can help them weather tougher times. 

"When I was a child, when I did something even once … I could remember it for the rest of my life," Opikokew said.

"For every child that grows up, it gives them a positive experience. To hold a fiddle in front of a crowd is a tremendous accomplishment," he said. "Nobody can take that experience from them."

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