Outreach: Wapikoni Blossoms

One of Wapikoni mobile studios with youth, during the Wikwemikong workshop in 2017. - Credit: Mathieu Buzzetti Melançon

Innovative Mobile Studio Providing Tools for Social Transformation to Remote First Nations Communities

As a young teenager, Emilio Wawatie nosed around the Wapikoni Mobile film studio when it arrived at the school in Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin community in Quebec about a 90-minute drive north of Ottawa. His aunt, who had studied video production in Ontario, had been recruited to coordinate the month-long stay in the community for the ground-breaking program designed to help Indigenous youth develop the social and technical skills necessary to complete a collaborative video project.

“First time around, I wasn’t doing any film but my cousin made a film and I scored it — I did the music –and I acted in it a bit. It was when I first started playing electric guitar,” Wawatie said, recalling his introduction to the non-profit organization some 12 years ago. Since its launch in 2004, Wapikoni workshops have enabled its participants to share their voice and culture with Canadians and the world. The Montreal-based organization has driven its rolling audiovisual and music creation studio into dozens of Indigenous communities, engaged 4,600 participants and posted more than 1000 short films created by Indigenous teens and young adults to its website. The films can be viewed on the English and French  versions of the Wapikoni website.

Wapikoni Mobile serves as interventionist, providing tools for social transformation with a rigorous program that helps to counter isolation, school drop-out, crime, addiction and suicide while boosting self-esteem, perseverance and resilience among its participants. The filmmaking process engenders confidence through empowerment, providing an outlet for youth to talk about difficult issues. Its participants are primarily ages 15 through 30.

The program was recently cited by the national Assembly of First Nations as an example of best practices in Indigenous education. Wawatie says what impresses him most about Wapikoni is that the crew that travels to First Nations makes a sincere effort to understand each community, engage the people and motivate the youth. “It’s helped (young people) share their voice. They always had a voice, but Wapikoni gives them the platform to speak louder and be heard. They have helped a lot of youth come out of their shells, helped a lot of people blossom.” That commendation is appropriate given that Wapikoni means “flower” in the Atikamekw language.

The first week of the program, participants attend afternoon and evening workshops during which they develop their ideas for their film and bring them into focus. The second and third weeks involve figuring out how and where to shoot their scenes and shooting the video. Editing and post-production happens in the final week which culminates with a screening of the films for community residents.

Wapakoni’s participation in various film festivals, cultural events and conferences has provided opportunities for some of the young filmmakers to travel out of their home communities. One of the most important events attended was the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “They get to check out places and see there is a world out there, and come back to their communities and motivate others to pursue their dreams,” said Wawatie who twice attended the UN Forum.

Wawatie, whose name means “northern lights,” wrote and directed his first film at 18 when Wapikoni Mobile arrived in Maniwaki where he was living and enrolled in an adult education program at the time. “Wapikoni let us play with the camera, check out the footage. From there, I got some ideas rolling and showed up that evening with papers and papers of video ideas and images that I had in my head that I wanted to make reality.” With that, Wawatie’s first short film Anishnabe Aki was born.

“It sparked more interest in working with videography. I’d been exposed to it because my grandfather, who raised me out in the bush, was a musician and videographer himself. Wapikoni gave me the outlet to explore those skills. That opened the door for me and gave me, I guess you could say, a vaster creative outlet.” A few years later, Wapikoni asked Wawatie to go to New York City to accept an award from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations as a representative of the organization and its filmmakers. In Wawatie’s words, “that really got the ball rolling.”

He, his cousin and a Mi’gmaq youth were then invited to go to Finland to meet with the Sami people and experience their culture. There, the trio documented the striking similarities they discovered between the Sami experience in Northern Europe and that of Indigenous peoples in Canada with their film Finding the Light.

Wapikoni-backed works have won more than 150 awards at prestigious events and film festivals. The program has spawned a new generation of young leaders in education, cultural and community action and politics. Wawatie, now 26, is testament to that. The unique life experiences he has enjoyed thanks to his ongoing relationship with Wapakoni have set the stage for his future ambitions. He intends to work towards creating a culturally-based, yet contemporary post-secondary institution for the protection and practice of Indigenous cultures and languages as the Sami have done in Finland. 

Since he began studying music at Concordia University in Montreal, Wawatie has made music his primary focus. His third film The Music in Me was inspired by the sights and sounds of nature that he absorbed while growing up “in the bush” near Barriѐre Lake First Nation. “Now that I’m studying composition and creating music, I have a lot of interesting ideas to combine Indigenous rhythms and melodies and arrange it for classical guitar or string quartets and symphonies. I want to reshape the music — appropriately — because a lot of these melodies are sacred and used for ceremonies,” he said.

Until recently, Wapikoni Mobile operated primarily in Quebec, but Canada 150 funding enabled them to travel to First Nations communities in other provinces. The hope is to continue expanding its reach across Canada, resources permitting. The organization is also open to requests from administrators interested in bringing Wapikoni Mobile to Indigenous youth attending schools in urban settings.

The latest news from Wapikoni can be found on its Facebook page

By Laurie Nealin

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