Debaj to collaborate on Northern arts training with Royal Conservatory of Music

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MANITOWANING—A new collaboration between Manitoulin’s own Debajehmujig Storytellers and Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) will see the Creation Centre in Manitowaning become a delivery centre for the RCM’s Northern and aboriginal ‘Learning Through the Arts’ program.

“It is a really cool thing,” agreed Debajehmujig Administrative Director (School) Joahnna Berti, who explained that the RCM Learning Through the Arts program has built a strong reputation since its inception in the ‘90s.

“Back when it began, that was the period when there were a lot of cutbacks taking place in education, particularly in the arts,” she said. “The Harris government had basically taken art out of the classroom—there was a perception of art as a frill.” Students would come out of the educational system with math, reading and writing skills, “like car parts off an assembly line.”

But that perception was quickly dispelled when it began to be put into practice and a series of art in the classroom programs began—and teaching in the classroom through such programs became an integral part of many artists’ sustainability plan. “Our own Best Medicine Troupe began around that time,” noted Ms. Berti. Outreach into Northern classrooms saw Debaj artists travel to the far corners of the North to bring theatre arts to classrooms from Manitoulin to the James Bay Coast. “It played a major role in who we were, making up 40 to 50 percent of our program. It kept us going before we were facility-based.”

But as time went on, and the Debajehmujig Theatre Group built its current Creation Centre on the bones of the former Mastin building in Manitowaning, it became clear that the organization could offer much more if the students came to them.

“So we began to ask schools to consider bringing their students to us here on an outing,” said Ms. Berti. “We simply could serve them better if we didn’t have to be mobile.”

RCM for its part had created its 35-hour training program for professional artists. “They teach artists how to set up learning communities for children and youth,” said Ms. Berti.

But where the RCM was less successful was in reaching into multicultural and aboriginal communities. “That is what brought them to us,” said Ms. Berti, who noted that Debaj has a successful history in those areas.

The region that will be covered by the new collaboration will extend from “here to where the land ends (North),” said Ms. Berti. “The goal is for us to have the best education in our region with a curriculum that is responsive to the realities of Northern schools.”

The first meeting between the RCM and Debaj is slated for the first week of February. “They are coming to explore our site and we will work on how to integrate it into training programs we can deliver.” The project will start out modestly and, hopefully, will expand in scope through time.

“This is one of the most exciting times to be here at Debajehmujig,” said Ms. Berti. “These are opportunities to explore and a great opportunity to bring people here to show them what we can do here on the Island. That will bring people here and they will hopefully teach in our classrooms and eventually add to the sustainability of the arts community here.”

Michael Erskine