A dog might be a man’s best friend, but each community has their own way of looking at that relationship. The first thing I noticed when I visited Waswanipi was the number of dogs that enjoyed complete freedom to roam the community. Being from the city this came as a surprise to me because of all the regulations that are imposed on dog owners here.

However, there is a set of guidelines issued by the department of Indian and Northern Affairs back in 1975 that is supposed to govern canine behaviour on the reserve. One of these proclamations states, “Reserve dogs shall not chase automobiles or other vehicles registered in the name of Her Majesty in right of Canada or to the department of Indian and Northern Affairs.”

This 37-year-old government attempt to regulate the dogs inspired Skye-Maul O’Brien, the Youth Fusion Media project coordinator, to ask the students of Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School in Waswanipi what they thought about the place of dogs in their community.

The response he received was overwhelming. All said dogs have an integral part in the life of the community. They are a part of the community’s culture and traditions and everyone had a story or two to illustrate the role of dogs in their life.

The responses to that question provided the inspiration for the Dog Project. The Youth Fusion’s photo club began taking pictures of all the dogs they could find in the community. The students wrote their personal stories and poems about the canine residents of Waswanipi as well as drawing pictures of them.

With the support of Réunir Réussir, Cree Human Resources Development, Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School and Concordia University, the project took around four months to complete and compile. Through the eyes of the students, the Dog Project now provides a unique glimpse into the life of a dog in a First Nations community.

The first step for the students was to search the streets of Waswanipi for subjects and capture images of the dogs doing their thing. The personality of their subjects shine through the lens of each photographer. The compelling stories of many of the dogs, and their relationships to the human residents of Waswanipi, were lovingly recorded.

Some students shared their stories of previous pets that had died. Florrie Blackned wrote a short but tragic story of her dog Lucky: “Lucky died in November 21, 2009. Lucky was bitten by a wolf. He was injured badly. They washed him in the bath because he was bleeding. Water went in his nose then he died. I miss him.”

Each dog has a character of their own that shines through in these images. Some are shy while others are obviously quite popular among their four-legged peers. The friendships between the dogs were also pointed out by the students.

Almost all of the dogs had names either given to them by their owners or that they had earned by their personality, such as Garbage Eater or BonBon. Some dogs were known to be friends and their relationships were listed as well. And there was even one called Smallie who was included despite its reputation for being mean.

Dogs are quite an integral part of life even though some people are afraid or hostile to their presence. But it isn’t necessarily what the dogs can do for us as much as what we can learn from them that should be valued. Dogs have the ability to love unconditionally, something many people lack. Through projects such as these the next generation can learn to appreciate what this majestic animal has to teach us.

Youth Fusion is a charity founded in 2008 that focuses on lowering the dropout rate in schools in Quebec by engaging the students in projects that keep the youth interested in their education. In partnership with Concordia University, Youth Fusion also sends university students to schools where younger students need extra motivation to complete their studies.

I had the good fortune of visiting Waswanipi over the summer during the opening of the Justice facility, and seeing all the dogs roaming free helped me realize just how restrictive life is in the city. Waswanipi and the Cree communities have a relationship with dogs that is the envy of all kids trapped by the overwhelming weight of laws and regulations in the city. A project like this should be a source of pride and a way to celebrate that special relationship.

In closing, I will quote a poem by Grade 6 student Serenity Polson, which perfectly sums up the relationship between the locals and dogs:
Waswanipi is a great place to be,
It’s a place that sets you free!
And all the dogs are free to be,
Off their leash and not inside.
I have a lot of pride,
In this beautiful town!
There are barely any frowns!