The art of amplifying young voices

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A special thanks to Corvus Roan for his guidance and collaboration on this piece. 

Edmonton’s iHuman Youth Society is all about art and heart. 

Step inside the non-profit organization’s headquarters and you’ll be greeted by vibrant paintings, warm smiles, helping hands, and a feeling of community. Make your way up to the second floor and you’ll find art studios and mentors—dedicated to painting, theatre, music and fashion.

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“Coming to iHuman, I feel like I’m walking into my home," says Corvus Roan, a two-spirit artist.

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Saving lives 

iHuman, located in downtown Edmonton’s Quarters community, is more than a creative centre—it offers privileges that people often take for granted. It’s a place where youth can relax, access laundry or shower facilities, and when they need to, talk to a staff psychologist or support workers. 

These services are enjoyed by a broad clientele—but iHuman also provides direct relief to those who are struggling with substances, houselessness and those in need of family support. iHuman’s harm-reduction and trauma-informed approaches are well received by its Indigenous participants. It’s a community hub for those who need help in the city and don’t know where to turn. 

“This place has saved my life more times than I can count,” says Roan, who is Nakota Sioux and Cree. “I’ve been dealing with homelessness all my life—in between homes, in between care, in between couches.

“iHuman was one of the first places I discovered what harm reduction was. It was the first place to give me language around being two-spirit. It was the first place I learned about colonialism and came to understand why I was treated the way I was. iHuman is very significant in my life.” 

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A person stands next to a canvas painted with images of a wolf and a human.
Artist Corvus Roan poses with one of his paintings in progress.

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Community art 

Roan first walked through iHuman’s doors when he was 13 years old. Now 23, he lives in his own apartment and is flourishing as a painter. Latitude 53 and Ociciwan Cultural Centre have recently featured his work and one of his latest designs appears on an Edmonton Transit Service bus. 

His canvases often feature queer or trans Indigenous bodies, animals and harm reduction supplies, such as Naloxone, which is used to counteract opioid overdoses. Roan uses his art to process trauma and to foster kinship—whether it be mentoring younger artists or seeking input from elders as he paints. Art is very much a communal activity for Roan. 

“While I’m working, they’re asking me what I'm painting and telling me how they're feeling and connecting to it and then opening up with things that they never thought they'd open up about,” he says. 

“I've had painting sessions where we ended up just smudging and crying together, because they're like, ‘I've never told anyone these things.’ I open uncomfortable conversations for people that are not willing to talk because grief is heavy in our community.”

Sense of purpose 

Artist Psi Lo, 24, was introduced to iHuman in 2022. They attended a drum-making workshop, then started using the studios to paint and write poetry. “I’m unemployed, so I make it my job to come here two to five times a week,” they say. “It gives me a sense of purpose.” 

While Psi Lo studied visual and digital art in college, they’ve started dabbling in music at iHuman. Thanks to encouragement from several of the organization’s art mentors, Psi Lo is now rapping and singing their own songs in iHuman’s recording studio. They also started freestyling at local events.

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“Honestly, iHuman changed my life—I realized I have a lot to say,” smiles Psi Lo.

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“I have so much love for this place. [The art mentors] are so supportive. Recording for the first time can be very scary but they know how to communicate to limit the amount of discomfort or stress you might feel. Because of iHuman, I found a way to express myself vocally.” 

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A person sits next to a canvas and puts the finishing touches on a fantastical orange deer.
Artist Psi Lo works on a canvas in one of iHuman’s art studios.

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Building messages

Art is essential to giving youth a platform to express themselves, says Shannon Hebden, iHuman’s Executive Director. 

“Encouraging them to just be who they are, to use their voice and get it heard through creation,” she says. “You don’t always have to say the words. If you don’t know the words, you can say it in colour and a piece of art or in a song or how you dress. I think that’s why most people who work at iHuman do what they do—we are able to provide tools, but they’re the ones who are building the message.”  

Now in its 25th year, iHuman was launched by Wallis Kendal and Sandra Bromley, the artists behind The Gun Sculpture, an installation featuring 7,000 deactivated weapons. The non-profit organization now helps more than 500 youth a year. Countless organizations and volunteers donate time, money and supplies. Funding also comes from various levels of government.  

Growing community 

iHuman offers various drop-in programs, including one for single mothers and caregivers and their children. The group sessions range from field trips to waterparks and indoor playgrounds, to meal prep and cooking to just letting moms and guardians take a break in iHuman’s family room.

Delilah Turner is iHuman’s Family Resources Coordinator. “There's these two moms that joined right when I started working here,” she says. 

“And they've just been best friends ever since, they do everything together. When one is sick, they help each other with their kids. They both actually just enrolled into the same school. So they’re growing that sense of community. I love meeting people and watching them grow.”

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Two women stand in front of a colourful wall with Indigenous symbols and words.
iHuman’s Executive Director Shannon Hebden, left, with artist Kirsten Threefingers.

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Breaking down walls 

iHuman’s community of artists is always growing. So, too, are their achievements and profile, as more and more volunteers, groups and companies collaborate with the non-profit. Over the span of JUST six weeks in 2022, iHuman’s artists painted a mural for a local developer, hosted a series of poetry jams and painted an installation at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, created a new Every Child Matters crosswalk in front of the Royal Alberta Museum, and created artwork for an ETS bus as part of a collaboration with the City of Edmonton.

“We’re such a celebratory, creative and arts-driven city,” says Hebden. “I feel like Edmonton is quite a unique little place on the map. This is a community, the city is a community that really steps up when times get a little darker."

Hebden adds, “I think that it's really special that our politicians and the people that have that kind of power are constantly trying to find ways to create and open up safe and brave spaces for artists, for the creatives and the people who used to be considered more the ‘misfits’ or the people who didn't fit in or have a place in the way society is supposed to run in that patriarchal structure."

"And I think that our city is just doing a really beautiful job of breaking down those kind of walls and creating that space.”

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Perseverance and pride  

The ETS bus wrap features a braid of sweetgrass with different images woven into its various plaits. Roan painted a buffalo and magpie greeting each other after hundreds of years of separation. “Abawashte,” says the bird in the stoney (isgaiyabi) language. “Abawashta tho snauwhuqi chi na shiwan,” replies the beast. 

Roan wanted to pay tribute to his grandfather, who suggested the words, and to the resurgence of the buffalo on the Prairies. “If the buffalo can come back, so can our spirits and hopes for a future,” says Roan.

“To me, it’s really significant to have my grandfather be a part of my process because he’s sick. I show him my paintings and he tells me how he feels about them. So the magpie is saying ‘Hello, this is a good day, I am welcoming you into my space.’ Then the buffalo says: ‘Hello, my old friend. It’s good to see you again.’” 

Kirsten Threefingers, 24, was inspired to draw some of the culturally significant symbols in her life: a medicine wheel with a feather, tipi, thunderbird and paw print. She’s been coming to iHuman for 12 years. She now looks after her two younger brothers.

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“I think [the bus] is so incredible. I was so proud and amazed,” she says. “It gives me hope to continue just being proud of myself and iHuman.”