Yukon mural project gives First Nations students holistic approach to mental wellness

Don’t be fooled – an eye-catching display of artwork on the back of the local grocery store in Mayo, Yukon, isn’t graffiti.

The colourful row of 11 self-portraits were spray painted by high schoolers from the J.V. Clark School in Mayo.

Ninth grader Liam Samson, who is a member of Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation (NNNDFN), says he enjoyed working on the portraits with his peers.

“I think people are going to like it. It looks pretty good from far away,” he tells APTN News.

Irene Melancon, who is also a member of NNDFN, created a self-portrait that features her face in blocks of vibrant colours.

She says the project brought a touch of colour to the small village of around 450 people.

“It makes the community more colorful and not just plain buildings,” she says.

The portraits are part of an initiative to encourage students’ mental wellness outside of a clinical setting.

It was sparked by graduate students from Carleton University in Ottawa.

The university has an agreement with NNDFN to collaborate on multi-disciplinary research projects centered around Indigenous and Northern studies, community and human development, post-secondary education, research and access for learners.

The idea for the project began in January. The high school students as well as a teacher met weekly with the Carleton graduate students to develop the idea.

Troy Anderson, an assistant professor overseeing the group, says both groups of students worked alongside each other and eventually landed on a mural.

He says the high schoolers displayed courage in committing to self-portraits because “we are often afraid that either our skills aren’t good enough, or that people may make fun of us….they own it in a real sense and it will be theirs for many years.”

Students say the project also helped with mental health.

Cheyenne Gordon, a ninth grader and Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen, says working outside on portraits and being away from the classroom helped relieve stress.

“Honestly, I love art,” she says. “Art for some reason seems to calm me after something may have happened or an argument so it seems to be quite soothing.”

Because COVID-19 restrictions prevented the graduate students from working on the project with the high schoolers, it was mostly funded and overseen by the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate’s Mobile Therapy Unit (MTU).

The MTU is a travelling health service for Indigenous children in rural communities which launched last year.


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