Northern Spirits program gets a boost from local leaders

A singer performs at the 2020 Northern Spirits Showcase. Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald

It wasn’t the easiest year for the Northern Spirits Showcase.

After being denied funding in November it looked like the annual Winter Festival show wouldn’t go on.

But program alumni, devastated at the loss of the 12-year program, gathered at the Prince Albert Exhibition Saturday to ensure that, despite the loss of the annual workshop, the show would go on.

Each came at their own expense and told their own story about how the program had helped them.

By the time they were done, new life had been breathed into the program.

“I appreciate everyone who comes out,” said Jeremy Corrigal, a fiddler from Île-à-la-Crosse who opened Saturday’s show.

“This is an amazing program and it saves a lot of people.”

 In a few weeks, Corrigal will turn 19. But he almost didn’t make it to his 18th birthday.

“This program has done a lot for me personally,” he said.

“I always was challenged with depression and anxiety. Last year I attempted suicide. Thanks to this program I had a lot of resources and a lot of people who reached out to me. They helped me get back on my feet.”

Corrigal thanked Northern Spirits for providing him with an outlet to experience his art, the thing he loves, every year.

“When I head this year that Northern Spirits wasn’t happening, it broke my heart. It made me feel that Saskatchewan is giving up on the north. That’s something that cannot happen. If we can save one more child that’s something we can believe in. Thar’s something we have to push for.”

Jeremy Corrigal tells his story at the 2020 Northern Spirits Showcase. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Corrigal’s story is hardly unusual for the program.

For over a decade it has been bringing youth from Northern Saskatchewan to Prince Albert for a weekend workshop in the fall. During that workshop, youth get on stage, sing, speak and learn to perform. They’re given a voice, some media training and music lessons, and introduced to people just like them from across the province they can relate to. Months later, they return to Prince Albert to put on a show.

Danlee Mispounas is also from Île-à-la-Crosse. He only attended Northern Spirits once. He started barely able to get up on stage. This year, he emceed the showcase and even presented during Voices of the North in drag.

“It brought me out of my shell,” Mispounas said.

“This experience brought me so much joy and brought me positive vibes. Back then, I was suicidal. Today, I don’t think of it one bit. It hurts so much to see they’re still crying for help and the program is not going through. Please do what you can to support our youth because we’re losing them.”

Artist after artist, singer after singer, got on stage and told the same story.

“I myself, going through the experience, as a teenager you don’t have that trust with adults,” Mispounas added later.

“You’re stuck in your own shell and hiding who you are. this is a way to express who you are and escape the world. Music takes away everything.”

 It’s those stories that have helped convince organizer Sheryl Kimbley that the program is so important.

But she’s not the only one who was convinced.

When the funding was lost and the program was cancelled, Kimbley and the rest of the Northern Spirits family was hoping someone would step up.

Sheryl Kimbley speaks at the 2020 Northern Spirits Showcase. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

This weekend, they found those someones.

Ronda Carriere, who is fighting a battle with cancer, stepped up with $200 of her own. Then, Mayor Dionne stood up at Voices of the North and announced he would give $500 to the cause. Former FSIN chief Lawrence Joseph matched the $500 donation.

Barry Mihilewicz and Big Drum Media, which produced the showcase, offered $500 off the cost of production.

They weren’t the only ones.

“It was a rush to the stage,” Kimbley said.

“Voices of the north audiences come from across northern Saskatchewan so they know better than we know what the crisis is. When they come rushing to the stage with money it’s not just, ‘here, we want to help,’ It’s ‘we’re here, we know and we want to help.’”

Kimbley couldn’t put the feeling into words.

“I had several tears over the past couple of days,” she said.

But the support didn’t end there.

On the second night of Voices of the North, Dionne, Joseph and Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron stepped up with a challenge. They announced on live radio that not only would they each be giving $500, but they would be challenging each chief and each mayor to match their effort. Someone else stepped up and challenged councillors to give $100 each.

Dionne also challenged northern corporations to give.

“It’s really important to these kids,” he said.

‘They’re isolated in the north. They think they’re stuck and they can’t get out, so this is a great performance for them to come to and show off their talents. Boy, do they have talents.”

He turned to the audience. He challenged them as well to return to the Winter Festival next year and attend the showcase. While about 60 people sat in the audience Saturday, Dionne has taken it upon himself to ensure that 300 to 400 show up next year.

“I’m challenging you people to put (Northern Spirits) in your calendars next year. We need …. To fill this building and show these young people we appreciate them,” he said.

“I’m going to hound you for the next year to make sure that you bring a field. We could really lift up these young people and show them that we love them and that we care for them.”

For Kimbley, seeing the support and seeing alumni come together to support the program is about helping out young people.

With a GoFundMe that was started ahead of this year’s show, enough funds were raised to give the performers a gas allowance and a meal. That’s more than any of them expected. They were just there to highlight how important Northern Spirits is.

“Aren’t you done with losing our youth?” Kimbley asked. “We have to fight. To me, the group that’s here is fighting. Funding needs to come through. Our leadership needs to know how important the arts are. It brings you out, gives you a voice you didn’t have before. It’s important.”

— with files from Jason Kerr