Wikwemikong youth dancing on stage at the Sony Centre for Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

Wikwemikong youth dancing on stage at the Sony Centre for Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

By Christine Smith (McFarlane)

TORNTO – Outside Looking In (OLI), is a unique program that allows youth to express themselves through the arts, specifically through dance. This year OLI had their largest youth participation rate in the program with 66 youth from across Canada giving amazing choreographed hip hop performances at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on May 13.

OLI was founded by Tracee Smith in September 2007. In its infancy, the program began as a sole proprietorship, but with its first successful show in May 2008, it fast became an official charitable organization in 2009.  Tracee Smith, founder of OLI says, “Outside Looking In has become an organization beyond what I could ever imagine in regards to the impact on mental, physical and spiritual health within our youth and their communities.”

This year OLI featured youth from Lac La Croix First Nation, Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Garden Hill First Nation and St. Theresa Point First Nation.

This year, 23 students from Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve were involved. Wikwemikong’s principal Michael Staruck says that when OLI first got started he was the principal of Eenchokay Birchstick School in Pikangikum First Nation.

“Pikangikum is a Kindergarten to Grade 12 school with approximately 700 students,” explains Staruck.  “Two colleagues of mine informed me of an amazing program that would have a tremendous impact on a few students’ lives in Lac La Croix.  I asked my Director at the time, Mr. Dean Peters, if he would support my wife and I to attend the performance at the St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts in Toronto, to take in the performance and to see if the program might be suitable and effective for our students in Pikangikum.  Thankfully he supported us.  That night we attended the first OLI performance that featured 5 students from Lac La Croix.”

“I think I had tears through at least 75% of their performance,” continues Staruk. “I appreciated their performance, but to be honest, I kept picturing and see a number of my students dancing with them as well.  I immediately felt that we had to have this program in Pikangikum.  I knew the impact of the program in Pikangikum, and wanted the same for my students in Wikwemikong.  Again, nothing happens without the support of the education director.  In this case, it was Dominic Beaudry who had faith in this initiative, and me and I connected with Tracee again and we got started in Wikwemikong.”

“This year, there were positive shifts in learning,” said Staruk of Wiky’s participation with OLI.  “I think students started to see the value in keeping up with the daily process of learning, and not just worrying about achieving the baseline or minimum mark to continue in the course.  There was a shift in commitment and dedication for some.  There were students who previous to the program skipped or missed many classes, or who just stop coming in many semesters, come almost every day and stick to the program.  They also devoted countless hours of practice time, when no other program had ever engaged them in this way.  There was a huge shift in attitude and behaviour with some of the students.  There are various degrees of stories, and some may have questioned why I allowed particular students to participate, based on these previous behaviours, but every day is a new day with me for all of my students.  When a student goes all in with OLI, all areas of their lives are impacted in a positive way.  As a principal, I don’t look at it exclusively as a dance program or a fun engagement program for students.  I go into it each time looking at is as a program that will help me develop and strengthen their growth mindset.  It will build their grit, determination and resiliency.  They will all become leaders in some capacity.  They will develop and foster a commitment to learning and understand the importance of being there every day.“