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Onion Lake community members stand next to a large steel teepee.

Onion Lake teepee brings people together

The RCMP helped fund the construction of a large teepee in Onion Lake, Sask., that its supporters hope will get parents more involved in their children's education. Credit: RCMP


There's a giant steel teepee in Onion Lake, Sask., that its builders say will strengthen families and help parents get involved in their children's education on the Cree First Nation.

The RCMP funded the project through its Family Violence Initiative which, among other things, supports crime-prevention programs.

The teepee is located on the grounds of the Kihew Wacison Cree Immersion School in Onion Lake, at the main intersection of the community that's often referred to as the Four Directions — a special location in First Nations culture.

People who live in Onion Lake are encouraged to place spoons on the teepee. Each one is engraved with a family name and virtue, such as love, respect, honesty and others, that will be practised at home.

The completed monument will resemble a large wind chime.

Sense of identity

Laili Yazdani, the RCMP's community program officer in Onion Lake, hopes the teepee and its spoons will encourage families to work together to create a sense of identity and belonging, and avoid paths that can lead to addictions or crime — which ultimately threaten a family's stability.

Like other communities across Canada, Onion Lake faces drug problems, including methamphetamine, domestic violence, gang activity and other social problems. These issues can lead some young people toward gang life.

"We want to help instil a sense of pride in the community and in families," says Yazdani. "Spoons are in everyone's home and it's an easy way for people to contribute to the teepee and celebrate traditional virtues."

Irene Carter placed a spoon — three actually — on the 10-metre-tall tepee.

They'll hang on metal bars strung around the structure, from top to bottom.

There's room for more than 2,500 spoons.

"We placed one for my family and the families of our two adult children," says Carter, who develops curriculum for the Cree Immersion School.

Carter chose the virtues love and patience.

"You need love to raise a family and patience to endure and survive all the challenges that come with that," says Carter, whose children now have kids of their own. "And we're still practising patience."

Laying the foundation

In December 2017, the project was approved by the chief and council, which also provided funding.

Peggy Harper, a guidance counsellor at Eagleview Comprehensive High School, says many children in the area lack connection to their family.

"Some really want that at home but, when they don't have it, join a gang. Many that do join a gang can get away with it because no one at home is paying attention," she says.

Harper, along with several colleagues and Yazdani, hatched the idea for the teepee in 2017 as a way to get more parents participating in their children's education.

As a residential school survivor — Harper spent seven years in the St. Anthony School in Onion Lake –– she's familiar with the struggles of young people who may feel alone or abandoned and the temptations they may face.

"These kids are carrying a lot with them," says Harper. "Then we expect them to come to school. But their lives could be falling apart. Kids can't learn like that. They need more support, especially at home."

The project team hopes to transform the area around the teepee into a park that explains the region's history to future generations.

"Many people don't know how Onion Lake came to be. And we want to tell that story," says Harper, who notes large community celebrations centred around the teepee will take place on each Family Day in Saskatchewan.

In-kind support for the teepee was also provided by the Rural Municipality of Frenchman Butte, Beretta Pipeline Construction and the Onion Lake Lands Department.

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