Music program boosts kids’ self-esteem, decreases suicide risk in Indigenous communities

“It’s a very important program to boost self-esteem and make young people see their worth, show them that they’re valuable,” says Canon Norman Casey. Photo: Contributed
Published January 30, 2019

A community project in the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, Ohsweken, Ont., is helping fight the Indigenous youth suicide epidemic through the power of music. 

Canon Norman Casey, who served the Six Nations Anglican Parish as priest before his retirement, has been involved with Music for the Spirit since its inception about seven years ago. The idea grew out of a conversation about how to get more arts programming into the community. 

Reserve school administrators, Casey says, have often found a lack of funding has prevented them from being able to provide many extra-curricular activities to students in the community. While some private organizations and individuals have set up sports programs, arts and music programs have been missing, he says. 

Through connections with area Lutheran and Anglican churches and in consultation with reserve school officials and the community, Music for the Spirit began to develop. 

“We got started by doing some—not fundraising, it was musical instrument raising,” Casey recalls. “We asked people to help us find musical instruments…And you’d be surprised, they came out of the woodwork.” 

The project has also received support from the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, Anglican Healing Fund, the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation, the Six Nations Elected Council and the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Casey says the program was developed with the help of Canon Ginny Doctor and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who had run a music program in Alaska when they both worked there. 

“A colleague of mine, the Rev. Belle Mickelson [had] a vision of teaching Native Alaskan youth to play music on guitars and fiddles,” Doctor recalls. “I caught her vision, wrote a grant and the Native village I was serving in had the first Music Camp in Alaska.” Since the first camp in 2006, it has grown to reach around 30 other villages in the state, Doctor says. “And, there has not been a suicide in that one village since 2006.” 

Music for the Spirit followed this model, beginning with a week-long music program for youth in the summer. Mickelson and another teacher who had worked in the Alaska music camps were brought in to teach. “They had so much energy and brought so much enthusiasm,” Casey recalls. 

“Then we had our own volunteers who came and brought their own musical instruments, and we set up the program,” says Casey. It was run out of St. Peter’s Church in the Anglican Parish of the Six Nations. The church hall was transformed into a concert hall and tents were set up outside where kids were taught how to play hand drums, guitar and violin.  

“At the end of that week, we had a big concert and we had a big feast—everything ends in a feast on the reserve,” says Casey. “That’s the fun part.” 

Thirty-five students attended the first year, Casey says, and the program received so many donated instruments that there were enough to gift each student with their favourite instrument after graduation. 

“We wanted to encourage them throughout the year to practice…and next year to come back.” 

Since then, Music for the Spirit has grown to include the summer camp as well as weekly after-school lessons. Around 75 kids attend the after-school program, Casey estimates. 

“It becomes a good time for the kids not only to get together, but it gives them something to do after school. So they’re not running around doing things, or getting involved in things, they shouldn’t be getting involved in. They’re interested, they’re involved, they’re learning something new. They’re meeting with their friends,” says Casey. The program has been “a real blessing to our community,” he says. 

“We are all convinced that we are doing a big important job at helping to prevent loss of our young people through suicide by helping to build self-esteem and giving kids a new incentive and something to do after school.” 

Building self-esteem is a big part of suicide prevention, says Doctor. In the music programs she has been involved with, she says, it has been “so good to see the glowing faces of the young musicians as they perform at their community concert, and also to see the relatives beaming with pride.” 

Casey remembers the excitement he saw in the children who entered the program in its first year. “They’d always wanted to play guitar but they’d never been able to have one, see one, touch one, explore what it sounded like.”  

At the end of the week, “we have young people who are really, really excited about what it is they’ve learned and how much they’ve learned, the quality of the work they’ve done in that short period of time. It’s amazing to watch them and the excitement on their face.” Especially, he says, watching the young people share their new talents with their parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles—“just seeing how proud they are of the work that they’ve done and what they’ve been able to accomplish.” 

Incorporating and teaching traditional music and language—through singing songs in Indigenous languages, learning traditional dances, and making hand drums—are also important parts of the program. “It’s very important that we remember who we are,” says Casey.  

Music for the Spirit also puts on community concerts and performs at the local seniors’ centre, where the young people and seniors dance and sing together. 

“It’s a community program, all volunteer-driven. No one gets paid. And the community has taken ownership—they’ve helped us out incredibly well. They provide us now with a music hall over at the newly built community centre,” says Casey. 

This past year, Derek Miller, a JUNO Award-winning musician, participated in Music for the Spirit as a mentor. He recommended the program to MusiCounts, a JUNO-affiliated music education charity. In November, Music for the Spirit was awarded $18,000 in musical equipment as part of the 2018 MusiCounts TD Community Music Program. 

“I want to see Music for the Spirit replicated in other Indigenous communities,” says Doctor. “I think the program really works; it brings the community together to support the musicians who come to teach.” 

As of now, several communities across Canada are working on starting up Music for the Spirit programs, Casey says, including Walpole Island First Nation and the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh. Epiphany Indigenous Anglican Church in the diocese of Rupert’s Land and Winnipeg Quaker Meeting are currently seeking donations to launch a program in Winnipeg. 

“It’s a very important program to boost self-esteem and make young people see their worth, show them that they’re valuable,” says Casey. 

“And who knows? We might just end up with a new Murray McLauchlan or a new Anne Murray. Kids get excited, and when they get excited they do amazing things.” 


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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