Giant steps for our community can start with small ones, and we often don‘t see until we look backwards just how far we’ve come.
That’s the lesson we took from our meeting with Sue Hamel, owner of Seek Adventure and Tours. Her first small steps with local film-maker Michelle Derosier over a year ago eventually led to the creation of the Wake the Giant safe-spaces initiative connected with the upcoming Wake the Giant music festival everyone here at the Chamber is so excited about.
It started with a conversation between two incredible storytellers.
Michelle is an Anishinaabe film-maker and community activist who through film projects like The Grandfather Drum (2016,) the Walk a Mile doc project undertaken with the City of Thunder Bay in 2013-2014, and last year’s Angelique’s Isle has been working to break down barriers between cultures.
Sue conducts, among other immersive activities, walking tours through the city which encompass history, culture, food, business and other aspects of our richly diverse community. Guests are exposed to enchanting narratives that paint Thunder Bay in hi-def color and encourage them to form deep connections during their stay here. When she met Michelle, Sue had begun seeing more and more locals join her tours. It turns out we like learning about our community as much as visitors do.
Sue and Michelle found their conversation turning to the persistent issue of racism in our community and the difficulties that Indigenous students from northern communities face when they come here. Most of these kids are away from their families for the first time and are bewildered by the daunting task of navigating a city hundreds of times larger than their home community.
The idea that came out of that conversation led to an application to PARO’s SENO (Social Enterprises for Northern Ontario) program to fund the development of Aanin Walking Tours, which Sue and Michelle conducted for Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School students and Matawa youth back in October of 2018. Much like SEEK’s other offerings, these tours connect guests with Thunder Bay, giving newcomer kids a sense of the history of the people and places en route, connecting them to the different neighbourhoods they visit.
During the initial tours in the fall of 2018, students were welcomed into a succession of local businesses. After a start at Bay Village Coffee they enjoyed a pancake and a Finnish history lesson at the Hoito; a spread of meat samples, sandwich-making 101 and the story of the Italian community at the Maltese Grocery and pizza-making with Donato’s Bakery. From there they headed to Court Street and a visit to the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery where they learned about ways to get involved with the community through art, and wrapped up their day with a pretzel stop at the Sweet North Bakery.
Sean Spenrath is the Student Success Coordinator at DFC and met Sue on the first tour. As he watched each business they visited make his students feel like the valued customers they are, he saw them become more comfortable and confident. The businesses they’d visited had become safe places for them. “It changed the feel of Thunder Bay for them,” he told us. “We only got to visit a few businesses but it showed us how kind and welcoming Thunder Bay’s business owners are. How could we grow that to create safe spaces for our kids all across Thunder Bay?”
More tours were planned with Sue, but she agreed with Sean that this wasn’t enough – they couldn’t visit every business in Thunder Bay on a day tour, as much as they’d like to. They needed a way to let more businesses show kids that they’re welcome even if they haven’t received a personal introduction. Eventually the idea of the sign to symbolize this was born.
In March of this year Sue volunteered her services to lead the walking tour to launch the Wake the Giant, initiative. A group of students, educators from DFC, Elders and supporters like Michelle visited businesses in downtown Port Arthur to greet business owners and place decals in visible places facing the street. And, now, with over 250 local businesses signed on, it is a growing movement.
“It’s like a candle in the window,” Sue says of the Wake the Giant decal. “When kids see the decal they know they can go in that door with confidence that they’ll be welcomed.”
Today, businesses showing the Wake the Giant decal have committed to being inclusive spaces for Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay. Educators like Sean counsel their students to look for the decal if they’re in trouble and need help, knowing these businesses will train their staff to respond with courtesy and compassion. The Wake the Giant music festival is being planned as part of a series of back-to-school activities aimed at welcoming and orienting Indigenous youth to Thunder Bay and will be held September 14. Musicians from across Canada will be coming to the city to bring music-lovers together and break down cultural barriers. The festival aims to role model and celebrate healthy Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations, as we continue to become a welcoming and safe community for all.
Michelle and Sue will be there. We hope they’ll take a moment together to look back at their small steps and see the giant results.