Talent already booked for future North Vancouver date!

Erica Harris and Jowi with Voyageur Erica Harris would have stood out in the Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History anyway. With her shock of punky jet-black hair and her bright red strapless dress she provided a bit of accent to the prevailing evening wear - though I admit I'm a bit surprised that more people attending the Canadian Blood Service's Honouring Our Lifeblood awards gala didn't wear red! She and her mother were seated at the same table as myself, emcee Henry Burris, honouree Breezy Russ and her partner and a couple of folks from the staff and board of CBS. But Erica also stood out because she was in attendance not as a staffer or volunteer or donor but rather as a recipient and she would tell her story as the final speech of the evening.

During dinner we discovered a Northern Ontario connection: she hails from Sault Ste. Marie though she now calls North Vancouver home with her husband and two young boys. I warmed to her no-B.S. attitude and energy and she really reminded me of my friend Karyn Ruiz, the extraordinary milliner who also hails from The Soo. We didn't really discuss our respective topics - figuring all would be revealed on stage. When I exited the stage from my turn she was super effusive about my presentation and I was eager to hear what she had to say to wrap things up. Honestly, her story just kind of blew me away. She had been a fit and healthy young mom, a professional chiropractor and kinesiologist living the classic Vancouver lifestyle when she got the surprising diagnosis of a very aggressive form of leukaemia and, soon, a two month prognosis after a series of unsuccessful treatments and explorations. An eventual bone marrow match and transplant from a donor in Germany gave her new hope just in time to be diagnosed with a double lung failure. But she was lucky to receive a double lung transplant AND successfully fight the leukaemia. Her experience has not only made her a champion of blood and organ donation but also given her insight into the layers of medical, technological, nutritional and spiritual elements that go into surviving overwhelming illness. She now shares her unique perspective through her organization With Hope, offering inspiration, support and the tools to navigate the gale of information and opinions confronting those facing severe health challenges - and their loved ones - just when they feel least equipped to handle them. The symbol for her organization is a stylized oak tree based on the one in front of her childhood house in The Soo that she thought of to give herself strength when it was otherwise in short supply.

We didn't get a chance to say goodbye properly as the busses came to take folks back to the hotel and I stayed behind to take a few photos with people and pack up. So we connected Tuesday morning for breakfast at Dunn's where I got the full story from Erica and her mom and discovered that they were of Finnish heritage and were well acquainted with the Hoito Restaurant in Thunder Bay, which represents the Finnish community there in the form of a couple of interior side struts in Voyageur. Erica vowed that she was going to learn to play guitar well enough to properly play this one next time I find myself in North Vancouver. So come on Vancouver: I haven't presented there in a long while. It's time to bring me out again!

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Honouring #OurLifeblood with @itsinyoutogive

Irene Mills with Voyageur at CMH My keynote presentation for Canadian Blood Service's Honouring Our Lifeblood event at the Canadian Museum of History Monday evening was a very different one for a couple of reasons:
for one thing, my regular presentation takes just over an hour and includes a lot of storytelling that takes the audience on a journey that is as emotional as it is geographical as it is historical and cultural. For this one I was asked to keep it all to 15-20 minutes, which required a complete re-think and re-design of the presentation in both style and substance;
secondly, my role at these kinds of events is usually to provide a kind of entertaining, inspiring and broadly embracing connective tissue to the proceedings amongst an audience that has typically been focussed and inward looking in their seminars and AGM business and that kind of thing. These people were all about being connected to one another literally by blood - each of them taking "inspirational" to a whole other level. Honestly, I kind of thought I might only barely make any kind of impact at all amid such company. I was grateful to have been proven wrong.

This was not my first time presenting in the extraordinary Grand Hall at the architect Douglas Cardinal's magnificent Canadian Museum of History - though at least one of my presentations there was in the time when it was known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The towering six-storey curve of windows that form the exterior wall opposite the stage faces northeast over the Ottawa River towards the cliff of Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier. The room itself is shaped like a massive Haida dugout canoe, with the interior curve of the room appearing as the entrance to a majestic Haida village with totem poles, sculptures and murals along its length surrounding the stage and with natural rock formations making the transition between the audience floor and the elevation of the stage on either side - a kind of miniature coastline. Elsewhere in the room are other Haida artifacts - both traditional and contemporary, including the original plaster pattern for Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Haida sculptor Bill Reid. It is always extra special and, frankly, humbling to present Voyageur in this room, given the extraordinary presence and prominence of the legendary Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii as the face of the guitar. But it seemed there was an extra layer of poetry in this particular presentation to this particular group in this particular room as I suppose you could say that the Golden Spruce was a tree with a kind of blood disorder - the lack of chlorophyll that made it so unique.

By the time it was my turn to speak, I'd already felt humbled not just by the room but by the honourees who came up to the stage to receive their awards: corporate and institutional partners, volunteers, community recruiters, staff and, of course, donors. One donor in particular I had seen enter the room with everyone else as the bus from the hotel dropped attendees off. She stood out instantly as someone who had come seemingly dressed for the Grand Hall itself as much as for the occasion. From her traditional woven cedar hat to her jewelry to the pattern on her dress, Irene Mills (pictured) wore her Haida heritage proudly. Irene was there to receive this year's award as a living organ donor for her Paired Kidney donation in March of this year - a donation that took six years to complete. It was an honour just to meet her so I was thrilled when she came up at the end of the evening and asked for a photo with Voyageur. Even more emotional for me was that while she held Voyageur and beat out a rhythm on its top, she sang the Haida national anthem.

Irene was just one of many inspiring people I met on Monday evening and with whom I was proud to share the stage. I'm so glad that the presentation seemed to resonate with so many of the attendees - perhaps because, as someone who has received diverse material donations from across Canada in order to showcase and share the lifeblood of Canada's culture and identity, they saw in the project a kindred spirit.

Special thanks to event organizers Gillian Magnusson and Jennifer McKay and their team as well as the staff and board of Canadian Blood Services who invited me to be a part of this very special annual event. Honestly, it felt like being invited to a family Seder for the first time. Thanks also to Patrick Walton from CBS, who brought Voyageur to life on stage during the presentation (along with all the other work he was doing at the event!); three-time Grey Cup winner, CFL MVP and CTV Morning Ottawa host Henry Burris for keeping things on track as emcee; and soundman Ray Montford (yes THAT Ray Montford!) for making Voyageur sound great in what can be an acoustically challenging room, no matter how beautiful. And, of course, thanks to all the honourees and other attendees who were the reason for this event - not only for letting me be part of it but for your inspiring work, dedication and sacrifice.

To find out more about Canadian Blood Services or to become a donor yourself, visit blood.ca

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Free show, entrance by Donation… @itsinyoutogive @YOWCityStyle

Katie Hession My presentation on Monday night in Gatineau was hosted by Canadian Blood Services as part of their events honouring the staff, volunteers, partners and donors who make the whole system work. So the organizers wondered if maybe I'd like to actually witness that system at work for myself at Ottawa's Carling Avenue clinic and maybe do a little show-and-tell at the same time. I just love opportunities to meet people like this so I jumped at the chance. At the same time, Ontario Regional Resource Manager Sarah Feldberg had enlisted the help of her old friend Katie Hession (pictured) - Ottawa's Instagram style maven - to...shall we say....inject some new blood into the clinic's social media outreach efforts. Sarah also recruited her musical friend John Julian to come and play as the opportunity presented itself in the juice and cookies area. John had met Voyageur years ago at a Lynn Miles house concert down the road in Manotick and this was his first chance to re-encounter the guitar properly. He opted for an all-Canadian repertoire including songs by Bruce Cockburn, Fred Eaglesmith and others, with his wife Joan occasionally singing some sweet harmonies.

The clinic set up is simple and welcoming. Donors enter the main door and basically complete a counter-clockwise circle. First there's the info, registration and intake area, then a little waiting area, then the donation area, then the juice and cookies area and back out the main door. It all happens in a short window of time so that all the blood and blood products collected on the day go out the back door behind the donation areas on a single pick up to the local processing and distribution centre. It's all quite high tech and yet the atmosphere was friendly and breezy - lots of smiles and conversations among donors, staff and volunteers.

We didn't do any formal presentation there. Either John would be playing some music or I'd walk around with the guitar and chat with people and hear their stories and find links in the guitar. Dennis Milling was one of the donors. He was most compelled by the Montreal Forum and Rocket Richard pieces in Voyageur as he'd had an association with the Molson family and the late great gentleman of hockey, M. Jean Béliveau. And, as we soon discovered, we also had a personal connection: his uncle and aunt Gord and Joan Milling were dear friends of my own parents. I always say that this project finds connections with everyone it encounters and for the millionth time I was not proven wrong!

Thanks to all the staff, volunteers and donors who made the clinic such a great place to be on Monday and every day of operation.

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Shave and a Haircut and a little music

Jesse, Alec and Calgary in Haileybury I've written about Alec Morrison before and referred to him in the previous post about our show at the Miner's Tavern. Others have written about Alec as well and he's shared his story quite a bit over the years. I've got a lot of admiration and respect for Alec Morrison precisely because he is committed to communicating - even when you can tell it's not always easy. And it's that drive to communicate that got him through a couple of stints at the infamous North Bay Psychiatric Hospital, which was finally demolished in 2013 - but not before Alec got permission to record tracks for his "Already Been Where I Was Goin..." CD in the vacant facility.

Alec is an artist in a variety of media: poetry, painting, printmaking, sculpture, even certified blacksmithing - and, of course, music. To all of these he brings a kind of punk sensibility, honed in his turn-of-the-millennium band, Bayl. But behind the occasionally frenetic chord changes is a keen and often humourous eye for poetic details that comes out in songs like "2 A.M. Toast" or "Trapper's Daughter" or "New Shirt New Tie".

We knew at the outset that Alec would be part of Saturday's show at the Miner's (for which he mounted a one-man regional postering operation!) but Alec had also asked if I'd be willing to let him play Voyageur in a more private setting. He'd hoped to do a recording with one of his mentors - First Nations artist Hugh McKenzie - but Hugh wasn't able to make the trip so instead we convened at one of several unconventional performance venues that are part of Alec's regular circuit: laundromat, makers market and - in this case - barber shop. Alec had invited friends Calgary Alberta (pictured, right... and yes, that's really his name!) and his son Jesse (pictured, left) - himself an amazing self-taught guitarist. Alec has deep connections going back to childhood with local First Nations communities so he performed his own smudging ceremony - taking in Voyageur as he did it - and committed a couple of songs to video after Jesse had had a turn. We talked about a number of things - including his trip to Ghana at age 11 - but his most amazing story was about how he obtained a signed copy of the latest Tinariwen CD for his dad's 70th birthday. Not surprisingly, it all came about because of his fearless commitment to communicating!

Special thanks to Haileybury Barber Shop proprietor Rae Giguere - not only for hosting us on Tuesday but for the follow-up shave for me and lineup for my wife, Sarah, yesterday!

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Miner’s Return

Rochelle and the Miner's Players (minus Dave) The title is a Coronation St. reference - if you didn't catch it - and it's appropriate because the Miner's Tavern really is our gathering place and home away from home when we're at Bass Lake near Cobalt in Northern Ontario. And the landlady/barmaid/Battersby of the Miner's is the inimitable Rochelle Schwartz (pictured, centre, holding Voyageur). Since Rochelle moved to town - and soon thereafter bought the Tavern - it's become a popular spot among locals and visitors and an important stop on the Northern Ontario music circuit and there's nowhere quite like it.

We did a very successful presentation at the Miner's a few years ago and since I was going to have Voyageur with me on this year's trip to Bass Lake (in preparation for an appearance in Ottawa at the very end of our holiday), Rochelle and I decided to mount a revival, as it were. As usual, Rochelle arranged for a great lineup of imported and local talent to bring the guitar to life following the presentation. Now, a Saturday matinee on the Labour Day weekend is a bit of a tough sell anyway but we did get a great response from a small but enthusiastic crowd - including long time Six String Nation supporter and material contributor Helen Scully Culhane and (finally!) her repatriated-from-Toronto daughter Terry, who also functioned as emcee and lined up a promotional interview for us on CJTT-FM in nearby New Liskeard.

We were lucky to get New Liskeard guitarist Zak Martel (pictured, second from left) just before his big move to Montreal to continue his studies and performing career with the great Denis Chang. Zak was accompanied on clarinet by Darcy Peter (pictured, far left) and they performed both in the second set from the stage and as part of the presentation in the "performance pocket" - the same role played by Zak's guitar-duo partner Jamie Dupuis the last time we did show at the Miner's. To see the two of them at work, you can check then out in the studio here. Filling out that second set were Dave Laronde (not pictured) from just down the road in Temagami, who did a couple of terrific original songs (and made that excellent comment about how he had to unlearn all the songs he played in teaching himself guitar in order to be able to write his own), the incomparable Alec Morrison (pictured third from left. Currently in residence in a room above the Tavern - more on him in a later post) and Bryce Jardine (pictured, far right) and David Newberry (pictured, second from right) who made a special trip up from Toronto to be part of the show. It was a treat to have them both and if you haven't heard Newberry's voice, I suggest you check him out here.

If we can get the dates right, nothing would make me happier than doing an annual show at the Miner's. It's a very special place, so if you're heading north on Highway 11, make sure you take the 11B turnoff into Cobalt and drop in to say hello and enjoy northern brews on tap Thursdays through Sundays. Plus, the lake route is way prettier than the bypass and you'll also get to see Haileybury - home of Hardy Boys author Leslie Macfarlane and Canada's most expensive house - where I'll meet you in the next post.

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The Summer Academy

GHCI staff For many years now, principal Andy Vandyke (pictured, second from left) - with help from dedicated staff - has been running a summer academy at Toronto's George Harvey Collegiate Institute. It's a chance for middle school students about to enter the "big leagues" at Harvey to get familiar with the facilities, the academic focus and the culture of the school. It's not for credit so you know that the students who are there really want to be there to get a leg up on the coming year. And as Andy explained to me, nearly 70% of the students at Harvey have been in Canada 5 years or less so there are many layers to the students' desire to build that sense of belonging. And for that reason, teacher Susan Novak (pictured, third from left), who'd seen my presentation a few years ago at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, thought it would be a good fit for the summer academy.

The parking lot for the school is a little bit hidden so I went around the block a couple of times before I found it but had it not been for the particular placement of a large bin, I would have recognized it from the three students waiting there to greet me and usher me in to the school. I got set up in the library pretty quickly and had a chance to peruse the nearby shelves, where I found Herb Carnegie's book, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk" about his experiences as the first black pro hockey player. I had met with Herb a couple of times at the senior's residence in my old neighbourhood where he lived back when I was doing my original research for the Six String Nation project - hoping I might be able to include something of his. Sadly, even with the help of Herb's daughter trying to track something down, he had no memorabilia from his hockey career that we could make use of. In hindsight, I wish I would have accepted just about anything she and Herb might have given me since his career as a business leader, youth mentor, author and public speaker was just as significant. And I was glad to hear that he had spoken at Harvey several times before his death in 2012. I also discovered as I poked around the halls and library, that George Harvey C.I. was the alma mater of NFL and CFL wide receiver Tyrone Williams, who is the first player to win a Vanier Cup championship in Canadian university football, a Super Bowl championship (2 actually, in 1992 & 1993) AND a Grey Cup championship. These days, the focus at Harvey is more on technology, ESL, post-secondary prep and basketball and gets occasional visits from various Toronto Raptors.

The students were awesome during the presentation and they were well served by the staff during the "performance pocket" at the end of the presentation. Math teacher Daniel Marinelli (pictured, left) warmed things up for English teacher Dave Watkins (pictured, holding Voyageur) , who played an original song titled "Going Back to Montreal". Dave, it turns out, has some pretty interesting Canadian history in his own family: his father, Howard Watkins, joined the police force in Windsor Ontario as a constable in the 1950s and worked his way up to become the city's first black police detective. Sadly, he died of a heart attack at the too-young age of 40 in 1968, when Dave was just 4 years old.

And to complete that family circle, Dave's son, Isaiah Watkins (pictured, right), currently on a basketball scholarship at Furman University in South Carolina and rated by ESPN.com as one basketball's top 5 Canadian prospects, dazzled the audience with a rendition of that favourite of gymnastic guitarists, "Classical Gas"!

Thanks to all the staff and students at GHCI Summer Academy and I hope to see you all again when school starts in the fall. Until then, enjoy the rest of summer and thanks for having me.

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Announcing an addition in honour of @naig2017to #Team88

Ennis Williams lacrosse stick As indigenous athletes from around Turtle Island gather in and around Toronto for the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, I'm very pleased and very proud to be able to announce a very special addition to Voyageur's case that has been a long time coming. So, first, a little background:

Materials comprising the guitar include contributions reflecting sports history from across Canada including basketball, skiing and several related to hockey. From the days of the initial research I had hoped to include something from Canadian Football, baseball, curling and lacrosse but nothing was forthcoming and by the time the guitar was ready to be built we still had no contributions from those sports. The baseball contribution was solved back in 2013 with the addition to the strap of part of a jersey from the Vancouver Asahi Japanese-Canadian baseball team but the other gaps remained. Overtures to the estate of Canada's most beloved curler have been so far unsuccessful and we are still awaiting word about the contribution of a potentially very important piece of CFL history.

During our engagement with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra back in late February of 2013, one of the guitar players on the bill was legendary Windsor-area bluesman John "Johnny V" Mills. He was quite impressed with Voyageur but let me know in no uncertain terms that he felt it was incomplete without the inclusion of something representing the game of lacrosse and that he intended to fix that for me. Backstage on the day of the final performance with the symphony, Johnny presented me with a lacrosse stick with its own historic provenance. Before I could look for ways to incorporate it into the project, I needed more information and authenticated background as well as to have some consultations with the artists who could find a way to keep the integrity of the contribution while bringing it into the case or strap (the only places that are available for amendments and additions to the project). So Johnny and I kept up a correspondence and he sent me some interviews and transcriptions as background. I still had many questions for him when - just over a month after our stint in Windsor - Johnny died of a massive heart attack on March 31st, 2013 and my plans to incorporate the material stalled. On top of that, the first textile artist I consulted with advised that the leather webbing that forms the pouch of the stick might simply unravel and disintegrate if we tried to remove it from the curved ash of the stick.

Eventually, I was able to get some additional background information from Six Nations lacrosse leader Cam Bomberry and a second textile artist, Holly Boileau, informed me that she was confident that she could retain the integrity of the webbing and recreate the feeling of a lacrosse stick at the top of the bed of the guitar case where the headstock of the guitar goes. I'm thrilled that her work was recently completed and right on time to celebrate the North American Indigenous Games and arguably the marquee event of those games currently going on at the Harry Howell Arena in Hamilton and the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena and the Gaylord Powless Arena both on Six Nations. The latter is located in Ohsweken where our stick was made by Ennis Williams. Here is the full description from the Six String Nation materials gallery:

Modern lacrosse is derived from the Mohawk game of tewaarathon developed over 500 years ago, becoming popular among non-aboriginal players in the 1800s. Long considered Canada's national game, it was declared Canada's official summer sport in 1994. Ennis Williams was one of two famed stick making families on Six Nations but traditional wood stick-making is becoming a lost art. This particular stick was used by the Windsor Warlocks, an Ontario Lacrosse Association team and Major Series Lacrosse champions in 1974.

To all the athletes at NAIG (male teams in 16U and 19U age categories, and - for the first time - female teams in the 19U age category) I wish you much success and thank you for continuing the legacy of this great sport. Your passion for this game forever has a place in the Six String Nation!

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Return to @HarbourfrontTO for #Hereinthe6ix

Student plays <em>Voyageur</em> at Studio Theatre presentation. In my old life as a production coordinator at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, right about now I'd be scrambling to make sure we were all set to welcome crowds to Canada Day events and officially launch the summer season. It was during my years there that I conceived the Six String Nation project and so many aspects of its journey have been entwined with Harbourfront Centre ever since - from the Craft Studio residents who worked on various aspects of the construction and case and strap modifications to the times we were featured on its stages to the artists I came to know there who have since brought Voyageur to life at events across the country. But it's been a while since our last official visit so I was delighted to be invited to play a part in their Celebrate Multiculturalism Day event on Tuesday.

The day was a mix of activities starting with an indigenous sunrise ceremony and breakfast and ending with a huge public concert with Kardinal Offishall (who we shared the stage with last year on Canada Day on Parliament Hill!) but it was aimed also at school groups in the final throes of their school year - and that's where we came in. We did two packed presentations in the Studio Theatre for pre-registered school groups and that too turned into a bit of a nostalgia trip. My friend Jen Stein - who was producing the day - asked if we could do the presentation bilingually. My own French is regrettably poor but in years past we'd done bilingual presentations in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and BC with our dear friend Gabriel Dube and this gave us a chance to kind of "get the band back together". It felt instantly familiar and went without a hitch.

That's not to say there weren't any hitches at all! Typically, when I do school presentations, there's a lot of communication between myself and the school in advance around tech and other issues including who will play Voyageur in the "performance pocket" at the end of the show. These can be students or teachers or ringers the school might bring in or some combination of the above. We talk it through to make sure the players are comfortable and prepared and that we're going to be able to cover the slide sequence that defines that part of the presentation. In this case that wasn't really possible. Multiple schools were attending each session and we didn't have any direct contact since this was more of a field trip for them. And their busy schedule elsewhere on the site before coming into the Studio Theatre meant that we didn't have time to meet before I'd call them up to the stage. All we had was two names put forward as volunteers to play - one for each session. The first session went pretty well. Student James Hayward (pictured) identified himself when called upon and came up to acquit himself admirably in an instrumental rendition of "Fly By Night" by Rush. It came up a little shorter than expected but he did a great job otherwise and was well received by his classmates and the others in the crowd. The second session didn't go quite so well. Whether it was simple shyness or a change of heart or full on stage fright I'm not sure, but our volunteer for the second session remained firmly in his seat in spite of the raucous encouragement of his classmates. Honestly, I don't need the players at these presentations to be virtuosi - it's really more about having the audience see the guitar that they've just learned the sweeping story of come to life in the hands of someone from their own specific community. It's a way of linking the national to the hyper local - all while faces of those who have done the same at events across the country scroll past on the screen in the form of the portraits - creating a kind of instant community of strangers. We were about to lose the opportunity to make that connection when a call went out and my friend Duncan Morgan - a theatre and sound technician and director recently returned to Harbourfront Centre after a stint at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre - appeared from backstage and stepped up to take Voyageur and play some wicked guitar to take us to the end of the segment. Duncan is a great guy and a great guitar player so that audience was lucky. But they were especially lucky since - and I did not know this - Duncan has his own issues with stage fright. I'm so honoured that by pushing through that curtain he pushed through something else as well and saved the day with music. Thanks a million, my friend, on so many levels.

Thanks to Jen, Duncan, Amanda, Bob, J.P., Laura, Steven and Iris from Harbourfront Centre for welcoming us back. Thanks to all the students, teachers and parents for attending the sessions - especially those who lingered after each session to ask questions, take pictures, tell stories and offer their wonderful feedback. And finally, thanks to David and Catherine for the simultaneous sign language translation.

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National Indigenous Peoples Day #NADCanada

A small sample of First Nations and Metis friends of Six String Nation Thank goodness that National Aboriginal Day (henceforth, as I understand it, to be known as National Indigenous Peoples Day - much better, I think) precedes Canada Day. It provides a little perspective on what it is that Canadians ought to be acknowledging - especially during this year when the 150 milestone ramps up the patriotism, for better and for worse. While there is, of course, much to celebrate and much to be proud of, to be reminded of the cost paid by the indigenous people of this land for the formation of this country - and the cost that so many First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals and communities continue to pay - should be seen as an opportunity for reconciliation and as a step on the path to being the better country we know we can and must be.

From the inception of the Six String Nation project back in 1995, it was my intention to make sure that indigenous contributions would inform the very fibre of Voyageur. There was no grand vision of atonement behind that intention - I simply wanted to make sure that inclusion was the lifeblood of the project. I also wanted to make sure that the participation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis contributors wasn't some special accommodation or some afterthought or some ghetto of pieces but that these would be woven through every aspect of the project in the same way that indigenous cultures and points of view should be woven through every aspect of our political, cultural and social life in Canada every single day. This country would not have made it to one year - let alone 150 - without the support, the guidance, the knowledge and the example of the original inhabitants of this land.

I feel the same way about the Six String Nation. It would not exist and it would not be the kind of project it is today without the support, the guidance, the knowledge, the example, the contributions and the participation of FNMI Canadians. Almost 25% of the materials that make up Voyageur and adorn the case and strap are of FNMI origin - including the two that always elicit the most profound responses from audiences at the presentation: the Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii and Joe Labobe's oyster shucking knife. And, of course, this guitar has been played by many extraordinary FNMI artists in venues large and small across the country and we've been welcomed in indigenous communities from Haida Gwaii to Piikani to Fort Erie to Natuashish. Of all of this I am immensely proud and immensely grateful. But on this particular day I want to acknowledge a particularly special gift and honour:
Six years and one day ago I was a guest - for the second time - on William Greenland's radio show on CKLB, the Voice of the Dendeneh, in Yellowknife. Greenland is a Gwich'in elder and a musician as well as a radio host. He spent a little time playing Voyageur - both on and off the air - and before I left the station he presented me with an eagle feather that he himself had carried to First Peoples conferences all over the world. The gift of an eagle feather is truly a high honour and I am forever in awe that he considered me and the project worthy of such a gift. The feather has been secured into the case nestled next to the waist of the guitar and I only hope that I am sufficiently fulfilling William's intention of having me "continue the journey" of this eagle feather as I share the stories of the Six String Nation wherever it may take me.

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Exit Music On Cue

Rich from On Cue Billiards For us, it was an era that had barely begun. For friends, musicians, pool sharks and wannabees, neighbours, employees and owner Rich (pictured) it was the end of a decade as a hidden gem for live music and one of the best places to play pool in Toronto.

At the end of April, Sarah and I moved to an apartment near the corner of Jane and Annette Streets on Toronto's western edge - the Baby Point area on the east bank of the Humber River. The strip has some fine amenities, including a great bike shop and butcher, Mexican, Neopolitan, Colombian, Jamaican and Slovak restaurants and the best croissant in town (at Patisserie 27). But our former neighbour, painter Chris Temple, and his son Mackenzie were most excited for us that we'd be just steps from their favourite father-son haunt, On Cue Billiards. It was everything you really want in a neighbourhood bar: not to glossy or showy, a bit of a hideaway, great tap and bourbon selections, live music, friendly staff, a signature snack (Ukrainian Varenyky - like perogies) and an owner/bartender just quiet enough, just witty enough and just crusty enough to pique your curiosity about his story. Tuesdays were dedicated to the music of Tom Waits - on both the CD player and the stage; Wednesdays were Humpday Blues: but the stage had welcomed everything from funk to flamenco to feminist poetry over the years. All that and ten full-sized pool tables playable at an unbeatable rate; and - if you wanted to get serious about things - regular lessons available from Erik Hjorleifson, the part-time bartender, pool pro and national billiards champion!

It didn't take more than a few visits before we were feeling very much at home there and glad to have a kind of touchstone in our new neighbourhood. It was just a couple of weeks later when we were informed that the building's owner had terminated the lease in the hopes of scoring a much higher rent for some other kind of use of the space (frankly, it's a bit grotty so I'm wondering what kind of tenant he's hoping to attract) and that yet another Toronto music venue would bite the dust on the last day of May. Chris was scheduled to be in town from Prague and he and Mackenzie and Sarah and I met there on the second last night for a few rounds of pitchers and pool and some heartfelt toasts with Rich.

The whole thing was especially resonant for Sarah and me since we'd been forced from the place where I'd lived on Sorauren Avenue for 23 years as the result of the same kind of real estate frenzy that has made greed and massive rent increases the norm in many parts of Toronto. These so-called "market forces" are presented as natural, inevitable, cyclical - and one doesn't want to cry victim only for oneself - but it seems that there is a kind of blindness required to simply acquiesce to the power of greed. To survive and thrive, cities need a mix of incomes and influences in all areas. When the most desirable parts of a town are turned over only to those who can pay the highest price they suffer a kind of death from within. There is no dynamic without diversity. In our old neighbourhood we've watched the population change as expensive new condos were built and house prices soared well beyond the reach of most people. Without meaning to paint them all with the same brush, the well-groomed young condo-istas with their well-groomed French Bulldogs arrive with no sense of what others of us put into making sure the rubble would be turned into a park and that the park would build a communal pizza oven and host a weekly farmer's market and push for the conversion of a linseed oil factory into a community centre. And yet they assume that these amenities are there for them whether they contribute to their maintenance or not. It's a sense of entitlement built into the fantastic prices they are paying for their tiny "loft-style" condos - the condos that displaced the actual loft apartments, studios and rehearsal spaces occupied by the artists who generated the creative energy on which a thriving neighbourhood was built. And it's that sense of entitlement (and existential fear) that drives these new denizens to prefer glossier, tidier, corporate-run bars, restaurants and coffee shops over the independent businesses that gave the neighbourhood its distinct character in the first place.

On May the 30th I took Voyageur to On Cue for regular musician (and neighbour) Kevin Roach to play during his set. On May 31st, Sarah and I were at Massey Hall (another place that almost fell to developers' greed decades ago) to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds while On Cue regulars sent Rich and his staff off with a huge bang. On June 1st I went by during the day where a tearful Rich expressed his regret that our friendship was being cut short before it really got started - but vowing to return in some other iteration at the first opportunity. At my request, he took a utility knife and cut a patch of felt from one of the pool tables. It has no particular historical relevance to convey - we're not aware of any particular luminary who played that table or any particular score settled across its fibres - but I will put a small piece in the case as a tribute to all of the music venues in this country that support local artists in all styles and genres and serve as important cultural incubators until someone else decides they don't matter enough to keep. At least I can say that, in some way, they have a permanent place in the Six String Nation.

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