Last month, I had the pleasure of attending Canadian Music Week’s 2017 Global Forum Networking Breakfast – a Music Canada sponsored event that celebrates and recognizes individuals and organizations in the music community who are using music to make the world a better place. This year’s topic was “The Power of Music: Indigenous Artists Discuss Music’s Ability to Unite, Inspire and Heal.”
The event featured a panel of renowned Canadian Aboriginal musicians, as well as Canadian director Mike Downie, brother of the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. Experimental vocalist, Inuk throat singer, and JUNO award and Polaris Prize winner Tanya Taqaq was the event’s keynote speaker. Alongside Taqaq and Downie, the panel featured Inuk singer/songwriter and multiple JUNO award winner Susan Aglukark, as well as Bear Witness, one-third of the JUNO award winning electronic group A Tribe Called Red, whose unique sound blends modern hip-hop, traditional pow wow drums and vocals, and electronic dance music. The panel was moderated by John Kim Bell, a musician, conductor, and officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
The event began with a performance by Manitoban singer-songwriter IsKwé, whose alternative RnB draws influence from her Cree/Dene and Irish roots. IsKwé’s performance was lively, powerful, and an invigorating start to the morning’s agenda. The performance was proceeded by an introduction by Graham Henderson, the president of Music Canada. Significantly, Henderson’s introduction included an Aboriginal Land Acknowledgement; a practice that is becoming increasingly common at public events in Canada. This is an important development because Aboriginal Land Acknowledgements show recognition of and respect for Aboriginal people and their traditional territories. While it is common practice at music events and concerts to thank sponsors, volunteers, and organizers, Aboriginal Land Acknowledgements are only now gaining traction. Henderson’s inclusion of an Aboriginal Land Acknowledgement in his speech was a positive step forward and one I hope to see taken by other event organizers in the future. Henderson’s introduction was followed by a brief speech by Arif Virani, MP for Parkdale-High Park and Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism. Virani’s speech highlighted the essential role diversity plays in Canada’s cultural output and indicated the importance of multiculturalism and the arts in Canada.
Taqaq began her keynote speech with one of her recent writings, a poem entitled “Sternum”, which juxtaposed the sternum’s biological function with the haunting image of a young girl immobilized by a man lying on top of her, his weight pressing down onto her through his sternum – as creaking bed springs resonate through the air. “Sternum” clearly alluded to the physical, mental, and sexual abuse experienced by Canada’s Aboriginal children under the residential school system, and the poem set the stage for an inspiring panel discussion that was as hopeful as it was critical. Taqaq’s keynote speech also addressed Inuit life and culture, the ongoing vilification of Aboriginal cultural practices in Canada, and the fight for justice for Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Taqaq’s speech was fiery and confrontational while simultaneously captivating and deeply moving; ultimately laying the foundation for the panel’s conversation on music, healing, reconciliation, identity, and artistic freedom.
One of the most interesting conversations, initiated by moderator Bell, was about the role Indigenous artists play as representatives of Canada’s Aboriginal people. Both Aglukark and Bear Witness commented that they felt conflicted about this role because Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are incredibly diverse and therefore it is problematic to view individual artists as representative of the whole of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. Taqaq echoed Aglukark and Bear Witness’ comments, saying she feels the public expects her to speak for all Indigenous Canadians, simply because she is an Indigenous woman visible in the spotlight. Taqaq explained that this kind of external pressure can be burdensome because some artists just want the opportunity to speak for themselves; to express their truth, their reality, and their ideas on their own terms. Canada’s Indigenous artists are entitled to their artistic freedom: to create and express themselves as they see fit, regardless of whether their work is keeping with expectations of what it means to be Aboriginal. This was a powerful reminder to all in attendance not to reduce Aboriginal peoples or their arts and cultures to a singular vision – for as Downie was quick to note during the panel discussion, there are over 600 distinct Aboriginal groups in Canada and approximately 65 different dialects spread across 11 languages families. Thus, there is no singular Indigenous voice but rather a vast multiplicity of voices that struggle daily to be heard.
If I could distill the panel’s discussion down to one takeaway, it would be this: it is time to start listening to Aboriginal peoples’ voices – to their stories, their experiences, and their arts. It is time to accept, acknowledge, and trust Aboriginal people when they speak about the harm done to their families and communities and it is time to reject pejorative visions of Indigenous arts and artists based in restrictive traditionalism. Music has the power to heal, unite, educate, and empower, but only if we listen truly and deeply. And thus, as Downie noted during the panel discussion, the responsibility lies with all Canadians, and not simply the government, to listen and strive towards reconciliation.
The author would like to thank Canadian Music Week and Music Canada for organizing this important and thought-provoking panel discussion as well as Tanya Taqaq, Susan Aglukark, Bear Witness, Mike Downie, and John Kim Bell for their words and art.
Stephen Cooley is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.