Northern Wilds Magazine
Wake the Giant is a cultural awareness project in Thunder Bay aimed at creating a more welcoming and inclusive city for Indigenous people, youth and their communities. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Empowering Indigenous youth through music and community support

In a remarkable effort to address the educational and social challenges faced by Indigenous youth from First Nation communities, a group of dedicated individuals in Thunder Bay initiated a transformative project called Wake the Giant. This groundbreaking initiative aims to create a sense of belonging and support for these young students who leave their homes to pursue their high school education in urban centers. By connecting the youth to local businesses, providing cultural awareness training, and organizing an impressive annual music festival, Wake the Giant is empowering Indigenous youth and fostering a welcoming environment in Thunder Bay.

The inspiration for Wake the Giant stemmed from a desire to address the feelings of exclusion expressed by Indigenous students arriving in Thunder Bay. These students often face the challenge of leaving their close-knit communities to pursue education, as the local schools in their regions only go up to grade 9 or 10. Recognizing the need for support and connection, the organizers sought to bridge the gap between the students and the community.

Sean Spenrath, a Thunder Bay local, works as a First Nations Student Success Program Coordinator and also volunteers his time to help coordinate the Wake the Giant project.

The impact of Wake the Giant on Indigenous youth is profound. | SUBMITTED

“We knew there were a lot of businesses in Thunder Bay that wanted to help these youths and make them feel more welcome. We wanted to connect them with those businesses,” he explains. “So, we started Wake the Giant. At the same time we had that idea, we were recording a song with July Talk and doing an orientation for these kids up north separately. And we thought, why don’t we put all this together and we do a massive orientation with a music festival at the end. We can bring in all these connections that we’ve made and utilize them. Make these kids feel more welcome in the city.”

The heart of Wake the Giant lies in its comprehensive orientation program. Over 300 Indigenous youth participate, allowing them to familiarize themselves with Thunder Bay and the various resources available to them. The orientation begins with an engaging activity called the Amazing Race, where students navigate the city, visiting Wake the Giant-associated businesses and essential services. They also attend workshops hosted by local businesses, renowned artists, and sports teams, ensuring an immersive and informative experience. The orientation culminates in a vibrant music festival, where the students perform alongside professional artists and receive a warm welcome from the community.

In its fourth year of having an in-person concert, Spenrath is hoping they can sell 6,000 tickets.

“All the money that we make from the festival rolls over so it just continues to grow the festival and grow the orientation,” says Spenrath. “From deadmau5 to Dean Lewis and X Ambassadors, we have a banger lineup this year that we are all really excited about. The kids also wrote a song that they will be performing; that’ll be really cool.”

In addition to the annual orientation and music festival, Wake the Giant is developing online cultural awareness training for businesses. This training aims to educate and sensitize employees about Indigenous culture, fostering inclusivity and understanding. This innovative approach allows Wake the Giant to extend its reach beyond Thunder Bay and impact businesses across the country.

The impact of Wake the Giant on Indigenous youth is profound. Witnessing the transformation of shy and reserved students into confident performers is a testament to the program’s efficacy. The program aims to continue this positive trajectory by expanding career fair opportunities, connecting students with potential employers, and offering year-round engagement with local businesses.

This year’s Wake the Giant Music Festival in Thunder Bay will take place Saturday, Sept. 16. | SUBMITTED

Looking ahead, the organizers envision further growth and impact for Wake the Giant. They plan to develop a week-long career fair to provide students with a platform for job opportunities. Additionally, they aim to deepen the integration of local businesses into the students’ educational journey, creating ongoing partnerships that benefit both parties.“

“This year we had our biggest career fair in 10 years. Both our gyms were full,” Spenrath says with pride. “That’s always been a big goal for us to provide these kids with job opportunities. I think we don’t get a lot of attention on that throughout the school year. We actually use these businesses; they will come in and do financial literacy and tech classes for the youths for example. It doesn’t just stop at the orientation.”

Wake the Giant stands as an initiative that exemplifies the power of music, community support, and cultural awareness in transforming the lives of Indigenous youth. By bridging the gap between Indigenous communities and Thunder Bay, this program has provided a welcoming and empowering environment for students pursuing their education away from home. Through their efforts, the organizers have not only built a successful music festival but also fostered a sense of pride, confidence, and belonging within Indigenous youth, paving the way for a brighter future. To learn more, visit:

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