Esgenoôpetitj First Nation opens doors to new youth centre

·4 min read
Bobby Sylliboy explains how to stretch deer hides to make a drum at the Esgenoôpetitj First Nation youth centre.  (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)
Bobby Sylliboy explains how to stretch deer hides to make a drum at the Esgenoôpetitj First Nation youth centre. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)

Bobby Sylliboy stands at the front of the room, carefully demonstrating how to stretch out strips of wet deer hide.

He tells his captive audience to pick out a skin from a bucket — and leave any negative energy at the door.

"All the good emotions are going into it," he said. "So when they go home, they'll say 'Yes, I got something, I made something."

The space is packed for a traditional drum-making workshop led by Sylliboy. It's one of the first cultural events at a new youth centre in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation.

The community centre is simple and modest in size. The main room resembles a classroom, with craft supplies neatly arranged in bins lining the walls and a pool table in the back corner.

Sylliboy, who helped kickstart the youth centre project, moves from table to table. He's answering questions and showing how to tie a drum. Older kids help the younger ones.

He said kids in the community were asking for more activities. After building a skating rink during the winter, they hoped for a year-round place to spend time.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

The programs and activities offered are based on what kids in the community would like to participate in.

"They just wanted somewhere safe to go, somewhere where they could just — the youth could be the youth without any kind of trouble," Sylliboy said.

"We figured let them decide what they want. And so far it's working."

'It's just the beginning'

People behind the project say the new centre is filling a void in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation. The rural Mi'kmaw community on Miramichi Bay is far away from many organized sports and activities for kids.

Mawiw Council, an organization that represents the three largest First Nations in New Brunswick, has helped back the building and is working toward expanding and replicating it in other First Nations communities.

"Bringing it home, it gives them a place to go if their parents are busy," said Tara Levi, the executive director. "Or just to give them active and out of trouble, and to give them a place where they can grow."

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Chief Alvary Paul said the new centre is needed and helps pass along culture.

"It's just the beginning of what we're trying to develop for our youth and get some more programs to start having them here than just roaming around the reserve," he said.

"There's times you see children walking around on roads with nothing to do."

Gathering place

The idea has been in the works for a few years, but it didn't take off until this winter.

A band councillor heard about a mobile building at a nearby factory that was no longer in use, and the community was able to secure a lease until the fall. It was moved to Esgenoôpetitj.

Almost everything in the youth centre was donated. Raffles and fundraisers were held to cover costs. Now, organizers are working toward finding a more permanent home.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

The building has been a gathering place for moments of celebration. High school and university graduation events were held here recently.

But it has also been a place for reflection at more difficult times. It was used to honour the life of a teenager who died in a car accident. It was also where the community held conversations after the disturbing discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Western Canada.

There's plenty to keep busy, with one organized activity offered each day, including cooking, sports and field trips. Then there's what Sylliboy calls traditional Thursday, when a cultural activity is offered — such as drum-making.

Building community

Ken Taylor is guiding some younger kids with their drums and making one for the first time. The 18-year-old said he was less interested in his culture when he was younger. But now with the new centre — it's more accessible.

"It's great to have this place to just come together as a community. It's just integrated our culture back into our community," he said. "It's awesome."

Morgan Lewis, 9, is sitting at the next table over, working on a drum with a little help from her parents.

"The best part is that I get to do it by myself because usually I need a lot of help from my parents," she said. "The hardest part is understanding what we have to do."

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Her father, Jason Louis, is originally from Esgenoôpetitj and moved away to Belledune. He drove more than an hour to bring his two daughters to the workshop.

After growing up going to sweat lodges and practising ceremonies, Louis is trying to pass it on and plans to return to the youth centre.

"If I can bring them to a community to gain any learning, teachings or experience. I will do that as much as possible."

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