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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Reunion and Remembrance with @MarkBlevis and the “Bob Mob”

Jay Moonah and the PAB Players Back when Voyageur was still a bunch of materials scattered across Canada taking shape only in my mind and the mind of the luthier, I knew I wanted to build a community at the same time as we built a guitar. It was 2005 - Apple had just launched their "Podcast" platform as part of iTunes and my friend Tod Maffin was (as usual) way ahead of the technology curve. And we came up with the idea of doing a series of short audio documentaries for this new platform that would begin to articulate this community of musicians and fans and educators across Canada through which Voyageur would eventually find its voice. Tod introduced me to a talented young producer in Ottawa named Mark Blevis who would eventually oversee the creation of the documentary series. While they never got the audience I felt they deserved, they still resonate powerfully for me.

A few years later - once Six String Nation was very much alive and out and about in the world - Mark invited me to present the project at the sophomore gathering of podcast pioneers called Podcasters Across Borders in Kingston Ontario. Just like me, he was building a community around a collection of stories and storytellers meeting on a new platform. There were certainly people I knew from the radio world there but also a whole new tribe of independent producers laying the groundwork for the medium that would make good on the promise of the technology to let people tell stories to a local or global audience without the apparatus of mass, corporate media. Mark's partner-in-crime in creating the PAB Conference was Bob Goyetche - an IBM IT guy from Montreal by profession but a songwriter and storyteller by passion - and the two of them co-hosted most of the events at the conferences. Seeing the two of them together, it was easy to see how they came by the nicknames of "Bert" (Mark) and "Ernie" (Bob). As part of my presentation, Bob played Voyageur with Mark accompanying on bass. Apparently, the presentation and the presence of the guitar at that 2007 conference made quite an impact on the attendees as Mark relayed to me in subsequent conversations. Indeed, one of the attendees, Ken Bole, helped lay the groundwork for me to obtain the swatch of fabric from the Vancouver Asahi baseball jersey from the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre six years later!

When Bob died unexpectedly of an undetected heart condition this past November 10th, it was naturally devastating for his wife, Cathy, and son, Simon but also for this continent-wide community whose trail he had blazed. That same community responded with equal measures of shock and support since the fall and this past weekend they reconvened in Kingston to be together, to remember Bob and to raise a little money for a college fund for Simon. I was honoured to be asked to attend and once again feel the strength of that community. We met for a cruise around Kingston Harbour on the Island Belle and swapped stories as part of the ceremony. Following the speeches and the auction (where I didn't get the print I wanted but did manage to raise some surprisingly good money for a few Six String Nation guitar picks!), I brought out Voyageur and put it in the hands, first, of podcaster and Twisted Pines Festival Duct Tape Guy, Sean McGaughey - who performed a song written specifically for this guitar called, fittingly, "Six String Nation" and then of fellow former-CBCer Jay Moonah (aka Broke Fuse), who lead the spontaneously assembled PAB Players in a rendition of, again fittingly, "With a Little Help from My Friends".

Thanks again to Mark Blevis, Tod Maffin, Cathy Bobkowicz, Mark and Maureen Blaseckie, Angela Misri and everyone else who welcomed Sarah and me into that very special embrace in memory of Bob.

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I’m with the band @khsmc

Keswick High School Music! It is beyond me how there can be any need to fight for music education in the public school system when its value in myriad ways - to the students, to the school and to the larger community - is so evident. Case in point: the Keswick High School Music Department. Teacher Scott Cameron heads up the program with obvious dedication to his students and to the sense of the role music plays at school and throughout life. He had me out to KHS in March to give my presentation to a substantial group of students beyond those strictly in the music program but with a proviso that he wanted me to come back in May for another presentation where the student musicians of KHS would really be shining for the whole community. Last night was that occasion.

In many ways, last night's concert was typical of an end-of-the-school-year concert that happens all over the place - except that it was held in the local Stephen Leacock Theatre in Georgina Ontario and there was an air of "extravaganza" surrounding everything: there were solo performances, duets, jazz band configurations, a reggae arrangement, a mass band, a choir contingent from an area feeder school, a prize draw, a Hockey Night In Canada finale and a packed house of friends and relatives in every seat not already occupied by the students and their teachers.

It was a full program and Scott had asked if I could come up with a much shorter version of the presentation to fit the evening so I managed to get something down around 20 minutes to slot in just before intermission. As he'd done during the "performance pocket" at KHS back in March, student Kyle Smith did the honours bringing Voyageur to life - though this time he was joined for one song by fellow student Jack Adams throwing his heart (and lungs!) into a rendition of Cohen's "Hallelujah". During the intermission, I hung out in the lobby signing books and chatting with folks while people took pictures with the guitar. It all seemed like such a "night on the town" for so many audience members that it was easy to forget that this was indeed a high school year-end concert. And that's perhaps one of the unsung values of music education in schools - the creation of these opportunities for communities to come together and see the development of home grown talent in a social setting, to recognize that the music presented and the applause offered in return help to build a whole other self-image - both individually and collectively - that adds a kind of value for everyone participating that is perhaps hard to quantify but so easy to see and hear in action on nights like these.

Thanks to Scott Cameron and all the participating music students and teachers - the work you do is invaluable. Thanks also to the crew in the booth, the Ontario150 Fund, the Town of Georgina and the staff at the Leacock and to my volunteer, Ashley, who kept things smooth and safe with Voyageur while I was otherwise occupied. To those graduating students, I hope music will continue to be a part of your lives beyond KHS; and to those returning next year, I hope you realize how lucky you are to have such a robust program and dedicated leaders!

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My @VicFoundation Journey Ends in Sooke

Journey musicians If you have a kind of idealized image of Vancouver Island in your mind - a rolling road twisting along the coniferous coastline with cozy coves harbouring independent businesses and free thinkers - you're probably picturing Sooke, home of the famed Sooke Harbour House restaurant that friends of my parents fled Toronto to start several decades ago. And not too far from that was the final stop on my tour of schools in the Victoria area this week - appropriately enough named Journey Middle School.

I was thrilled that Journey decided to delay the start of renovations to their gymnasium so we could do this assembly today and although it was a short day for the school I was also thrilled that the students hung on every word of the presentation even beyond our official end time. Vice-principal Glenn Bedard helped us get set up and festooned the table where I place the guitar case with a school logo covering made in the traditional button blanket style of the local T'Sou-ke Nation on whose traditional territory the school sits.

For the performance pocket, Miles Eldredge (pictured, second from left) performed solo doing one of his own songs, while Mitch Rehman (holding Voyageur) covered the Beatles' "Oh Darling" with Richard Hopkins (left) on bass and student Ella McDonald (right) providing some powerful vocals. It was a real high note on which to bring this extraordinary week to a close (though I'm kind of amazed they didn't do a Journey song!).

Thanks to everyone at Journey and to everyone at the Victoria Foundation for making this such an amazing journey for me on Vancouver Island!

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VSS (Very Special Spencer)

Very Special Spencer Crew What a week! Today's final day of presentations took me further west than I've been this trip - past Esquimalt toward the western flank of Vancouver Island to Langford and Sooke - very different terrain and a really beautiful drive. At this point, I've done presentations at perhaps a few hundred different schools across the country. Of course, they're all different and they all have similarities but I find it so interesting how each school develops a unique character that makes itself apparent in a variety of ways: the look and feel of the school, the ease with students laugh and participate, the confidence with which they ask questions, the amount of discipline staff feels compelled to apply, the relationship apparent between students and staff. And sometimes you just come upon a place that has a very special feel and everything about that school seems to reflect that unique character. That was Spencer Middle School in Langford this morning. The students really responded to the presentation, of course, but things really bloomed during the performance pocket. They had arranged quite a line-up of players - including Trisha Judar (pictured, holding Voyageur) accompanied by Essencia Leandro (front row, second from left) and Chloe Leclair (far right) on vocals and piano; teacher Jason Chan (pictured, holding the frets) did a solo instrumental blues piece; and the finale was lead by shop teacher Merv Pasay (pictured, with the giant moustache) accompanied by Duey (between Trish and Merv), Martina (far left) and...well...the WHOLE SCHOOL in a song that Merv wrote and that the school has been singing for years: "Spencer, Have a Beautiful Day". The sound that came back from the crowd during the sing-a-long sections was epic!

Once the assembly was done and I was all packed up, vice-principal Jennifer Nixon (pictured, back row right) took me on a little tour of the school on the way back to my car. It was interesting enough architecturally - a kind of wheel hallway built around a circular atrium - but even more interesting were the Rube-Goldberg-style installations in the hall, above the lockers and along the walls: a harmonium requiring two people to operate, colourful bike wheels formed into crank operated cogs, an animated model school bus - even the huge multilingual welcome sign at the entrance to the school - all created by Merv and his shop class students. Fanciful and delightful but each one a demonstration of mechanical or architectural principles. This Dr. Seuss quality combined with my experience at the assembly was further articulation of the unique character of the school and proof that, as the Spencer motto says, it's "A Great Place for Learning".

Thanks to principal Terry Honer (back row, left), all the staff and students for giving me a chance to learn in your environment too!

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Cross that Bridge for @SD61schools @NNaughton61 @RHRavens

Joel, Tracey and Josh Across from where Pandora St. meets Wharf St. on Victoria's Inner Harbour is a controversial blue bridge. This big blue Meccano-set-dinosaur is a drawbridge that connects downtown with West Victoria and the traditional territory of the Esquimalt First Nation including the famed Esquimalt Naval Base. It's controversial not only because some people hate it and some people love it but because the project to finally replace the crumbling was embroiled in international disputes, cost overruns and a long-delayed timetable for completion. Which means you can still cross it for the time being and I hadn't had occasion to yet on this trip. So I was glad for today's presentations at Shoreline Community Middle School and nearby Rockheights Middle School so I could have one last chance to use it before the sleek new bridge opens (with any luck) sometime later this year.

The Shoreline assembly proved to be yet another awesomely attentive group with performances on Voyageur by staff members Joel Smith (pictured, left), Tracey Nolan and Josh Gronotte. As I always note, all kinds of people have all kinds of connections to all kinds of pieces in the guitar, case and strap but the one story that consistently makes the biggest impact and draws people out to tell their connection to an extraordinary community and its extraordinary tree is the Golden Spruce. After we'd finished the presentation, Tracey came up to tell me one of the most deeply personal, deeply emotional stories anyone has ever told me in connection to the Golden Spruce. Of course, I won't share that here but I want to truly thank her for sharing her experience with me and adding to the depth of feeling the informs every single telling of my own connection to that tree and that community and for which I am forever grateful to the people of Haida Gwaii.

From there it was a short drive to Rockheights Middle School, where the student body was an amazing mix of First Nations kids, the kids of military personnel and many who were both. It was highly multicultural - made more so by a contingent of visiting students from Thailand. As someone who spent the better part of a year living in that beautiful country, it was great to put Voyageur in their hands and have a chance to say "Khop khun khap!".

Thanks to vice principal Michelle Troughton at Shoreline and principal Maryanne Trofimuk at Rockheights along with all the staff and students at both schools.

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Retirement Living with @VicFoundation

Darwin Scott rehearses Yesterday at Government House I was introduced to Gordon Denford, the Victoria Foundation's Honorary Governor and the founder of Berwick Retirement Communities, with multiple locations - most on Vancouver Island. As part of Berwick's sponsorship of the Donor Tea, he'd arranged to have me do my presentation at Berwick's Royal Oak location. I have done the presentation for a few other retirement homes over the years and those occasions have proven to be treasure troves of stories as residents come up to chat following the presentation so I was very much looking forward to this event. But I'm not sure I was quite prepared for what I found on arriving at Berwick Royal Oak:
I was greeted at the main entrance by manager Debbie Macmurchie and lead down a grand corridor past a sumptuously appointed reading room, a small seminar room, a pub and billiards room and other amenities, down the staircase overlooking the dining room and buffet and into a small but well-appointed theatre. To be honest, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd walked into a ski resort rather than a retirement home!

As I was getting set up, Debbie informed me that the guitar player on staff she'd lined up to play in the performance pocket had called in sick. Apart from it being a shame if the audience doesn't hear the guitar they've just spent an hour learning about come to life, it also creates a kind of awkward interruption in the flow of the presentation so I always insist we explore every possibility before going to Plan B. So Debbie set out and within 20 minutes or so had called her husband Rick Macmurchie to head over and deliver some Neil Young and located one of the servers from the dining room, Darwin Scott (pictured), who was seconded from his station to come and rehearse backstage before doing a great job playing at the end of the presentation.

Once again, the audience was tremendously attentive and appreciative and I had all kinds of folks coming up to chat and share stories after the presentation - a wonderful way to end a very full day in Victoria.

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Glad to Be at Glanford with @GMSMavericks

Glanford staff and student players Glanford Middle School was just a short drive from Colquitz, which gave me plenty of time to stop at a terrific local market for a glass of house made kombucha and a perfectly contructed made-to-order roast beef sandwich on rye!

The way these presentations work is that I do my storytelling for almost an hour and then I take Voyageur out of its case to be played by one or more players from the school or community in what we call the "performance pocket". That pocket at standard length is about 8 minutes, which typically gives us time for 2-3 songs. There's almost always a person or two at every event who is willing to step up in front of an audience and give it their best shot but, occasionally, recruiting players from the staff or student body means helping potential players overcome some performance anxiety or outright stagefright. That was certainly not the case at Glanford! Students Owen, Jason and Liam and staff members Mark Atkins, Mark Leischner and Jenni Scott all stepped enthusiastically into the spotlight and we stretched the performance pocket out to 11 or 12 minutes to accommodate. If only it was this easy to get players at every event (see next blog post!)

Thanks to principal Louie Scigliano and all the staff and students at Glanford.

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Media Morning on the @ColquitzScene #SD61 @CHEK_News

Colquitz players The Victoria Foundation certainly programmed a very busy Wednesday for me! It's probably a good thing I had an early night last night following a great dinner with my sister and niece at the wonderful Brasserie L'École on Government St. Not only were we due for an early start at Colquitz Middle School but the Foundation had also arranged for this to be an opportunity for local media to come and check things out. The Times-Colonist newspaper had sent someone out to yesterday's Government House event and they'd interviewed me over the phone the day before. First thing this morning it was CHEK TV. I'd actually heard about CHEK some months ago on the CANADALAND podcast. Launching as BC's first privately owned TV station at the end of 1956, CHEK became a near casualty of Canada's troubling media business concentration until it was rescued and revived as North America's first and only independent, employee-owned television station in 2009. We did a stand-up and they stuck around for the whole presentation and put together a nice little feature on Six String Nation's time in Victoria, which you can see here.

As for the presentation itself - it happened to be "Jersey Day" at Colquitz so many students and staff were wearing their favourite team jerseys (I was glad to see one teacher in a Leafs jersey) and that made it easy to figure out whose faces to watch when I got to the "Rocket" Richard part of the story! It was another super attentive audience with fine performances from student players Owen Bardy (pictured, left), who really nailed Radiohead's "Paranoid Android", Theo Zaalberg (centre) and Ty Reeve (right). You know, as a kid, the Chicago Blackhawks were my favourite team so I'm with Ty on the jersey choice. But - especially since Truth & Reconciliation is such an important part of the presentation - I hope that "Jersey Day" events at schools across Canada become an opportunity to talk about the #notyourmascot movement. And speaking of jerseys... the Colquitz Middle School baseball shirt they presented me as a gift after the presentation is already my favourite school swag ever!

Special thanks to principal Gord Mitchell, vice principal Sarah Khosla, the staff and students at Colquitz and Vee Cooper and her crew from CHEK.

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