Head in the Game @TeamNext

Bruny Surin and Kimberly Hyacinthe As I said in my post about the Sport Leadership Conference earlier this month in Ottawa, I think there is a real resonance between artists and amateur athletes – especially in Canada: both depend on a combination of individual talent and teamwork to deliver the product to audiences, both try to connect those audiences to something within themselves and something bigger than themselves, and both are supremely underfunded.
The similarities were not lost on Ashley LaBrie, director of operations for AthletesCAN – an organization that supports amateur athletes in all their off-the-field challenges, from connecting them to available funds to advocating on their behalf at the provincial, national and international level. She extended an invitation to come down to a dinner at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto capping a day of activities for PanAm and ParaPan hopefuls participating in CIBC Team Next – a three-year bursary and mentorship program for promising athletes.

I went down with Voyageur and delivered an abridged version of the presentation to 50+ athletes and their mentors. It was a chance to continue the conversation with Stephanie Dixon we'd begun the week before at SportLeadership, to meet the wonderful and energetic Olympic Gold Medal triathlete Simon Whitfield and to share Voyageur with a group of people all prepared to do great things for Canada. Two of them did great things for Voyageur by playing a little for the gathering following the presentation: up and coming triathlete Andrew Yorke played a little Neil Young while 2012 Paralympian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy (coincidentally celebrating a birthday that night) favored us with some Radiohead.

Photographer Ahren Cadieux was set up to take some photos of the group and we managed to get just about everyone – including the legendary 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Bruny Surin, pictured above motivating his mentee, sprinter Kimberly Hyacinthe.

Thanks to Ahren and Ashley, to all of the #CIBCTeamNext participants and to Andrew Greenlaw and his CIBC Team Next team for their support of these athletes.
Thanks also to Wojtek for the audio-visual in the room.

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Good Sports @CAC_ACE #SportLeadership

Singer Angela Marie poses with Jowi and Voyageur First of all, I want to acknowledge that my friends at the National Speakers Bureau really do try to sell the Six String Nation experience to conference clients but I know it can be a bit of a tough sell. After all, if you're organizing a conference for health information management professionals or financial services technologists or hotel franchisees, it may not be apparent why you'd want your keynote speaker to talk about a guitar. But time and again I have the experience of sharing Voyageur's story with an audience and there's this moment that happens when I feel a profound connection with the room. It's the moment when the audience realizes that the story I'm telling is actually about them. At that point, all the connections that the project makes possible kind of come to life and everyone in the room feels that the story is a reflection of their own story, their own experience, their own organization. It's a beautiful thing.

I was very fortunate for this past weekend's event at the Westin Ottawa for the Coaching Association of Canada's PetroCanada Sport Leadership Conference that I had a couple of strong advocates in conference organizers Krista Benoit and Kelly Michael, who recognized the Six String Nation message as a great fit for the gathering. That opinion might not have been shared by everyone (or more likely it was just the result of over-indulgence at the awards gala and afterparty on Friday night!) as the ballroom was only about half filled on that first-thing-Saturday-morning slot. But gradually people filtered in and as I got further into the story, the more I felt the room was with me. It turned out to be one of the most profoundly affecting experiences for me of any presentation I've done. Here, after all, were elite-level athletes, coaches and association representatives who must be constantly aware of the relationship between individual contribution and national identity, cultural diversity and common purpose. It all capped off with a spontaneous request from the crowd for a rendition of "O Canada" which left not a dry eye in the house. I was honored and moved to be a part of the event.

The "performance pocket" was handled beautifully by Ottawa native Angela Marie (pictured with me, above), who did two originals, "Built for Breaking" and "Like Shania" as well as a cover of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" – fitting in the singer's home town and I believe the first Alanis song sung with Voyageur!

Following the presentation and the impromptu anthem, we repaired to the foyer where I signed books and people stood in line for over an hour to meet and hold Voyageur. I was so grateful to meet with such a warm and enthusiastic reception and have so many people offer to advocate that Six String Nation find a role at the PanAm and ParaPanAm Games next summer. It's something I've been trying to do on my own but haven't had much success with... yet. I was especially touched by Paralympic multi-medal winning swimmer Stephanie Dixon who co-emceed the event with fellow Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot and hung around to chat about a number of things once the line up had cleared. Stay tuned, we may be hatching a couple of really interesting initiatives in the future!

Thanks to everyone who attended, I'm glad you did. Thanks again to Kelly and Krista, Angela, Stephanie and Benoit as well as Dan Lamoureux, Conrad Hijazi and the rest of the EPS Canada crew who made everything run so smoothly. Thanks also to Lori Wagner from Porter Airlines not only for their support of the event and my travel to it but also for their ongoing support of Canadian amateur athletes and the great care they take with Voyageur every time we fly Porter. And an extra special thanks to my dear Sarah Gillett who handled book sales and made the whole weekend seem a holiday.

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Hillcrest Opportunity

Oluwayomi Odusi plays for fellow students at Hillcrest HS Knowing I'd be in Ottawa for the Coaching Association of Canada's Sport Leadership Conference on Saturday morning, I booked travel to be able to spend the weekend with a friend and provide an opportunity for some of my Ottawa-area school contacts to request a presentation. Teacher Jeannie Hunter, whom I met at the Ontario Music Educators Association Conference back in 2009, has been a consistent advocate for the Six String Nation and arranged for me to get an invitation to Ottawa's Hillcrest High School while she was away at this year's edition of OMEA.

I was greeted at the main door by students, music teacher Melanie Reeks and principal Barry Bickerton. Together, they all facilitated the set up in the auditorium and we managed some group portraits with some special ed and music classes before the doors opened. Three students were lined up to play Voyageur in the "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation: Oluwayomi Odusi (pictured) was up first, with Melbourne Eve playing next and Cansu Ozturk (she was the only singer among the three) performing last. Still, the three songs didn't quite get us to the end of the 8-minute performance pocket sequence so I called on principal Bickerton who had already volunteered to be on standby. Barry has a very friendly face and demeanor and when he started to play it seemed pretty pretty much in character. But after just a couple of bars his growling inner bluesman really emerged and had the whole assembly cheering. Later, he wrote me the most wonderful note that said, in part: Friday's assembly stands as one of the proudest moments for me in my career as a principal and I can tell you that students and staff who were drawn to the stage at the end of your presentation were just as enthralled as I was.

Thanks to Barry, Melanie, Jeannie, all the players, all the students and especially the crew who were very entertaining in their own right as they ribbed each other throughout the set up. I hope I'll have yet another opportunity to strengthen the bond between Six String Nation and Hillcrest down the road some time.

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A Chance Encounter in Calgary

Tom Jackson in Calgary I'm lucky to have good friends in different parts of Canada and so my occasional travels revolving around Voyageur give me an opportunity see people I wish I saw on a more regular basis. That was certainly the case this past weekend where I got to spend some quality catch-up time with old and dear friends Ted & Sue Koleff and squeeze in a pre-departure early lunch meeting Monday with my good pal Ian Menzies. Just as I was pulling up to the restaurant to meet Ian, I saw someone I've been wanting to see for a long time but never had the chance – the legendary actor, musician and activist Tom Jackson (pictured).

Through a friend, I corresponded briefly with Tom back when I was researching for the Six String Nation project and still looking for materials. Knowing he was from Saskatchewan originally, I was hoping he might connect me to something from Batoche. Our Louis Riel-related material ended up coming (spectacularly) from St. Boniface MB while Tom clued me in to the story of Almighty Voice from the One Arrow First Nation in Saskatchewan. He put me in touch with some people in the community and we ended up getting a piece of stone from the monument to the young Cree man whose tragic tale was a testament to the appalling treatment of First People by the North West Mounted Police and the injustices of the reserve system. It is now mounted as one of three inlays in the first fret of Voyageur.

I'm so glad I finally got a chance to put the guitar in Tom's hands and he played beautifully right there in the parking lot. Thanks for taking the time, Tom!

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Re-imagining John Ware

Cheryl Foggo I'd heard earlier this summer about a new play about Alberta's legendary black cowboy, John Ware, produced by Ellipsis Tree Theatre in Calgary written by author, screenwriter, historian and playwright Cheryl Foggo (pictured). Knowing that I"d be returning Voyageur to John Ware's Cabin to recognize the contribution of material for the pick-guard, I thought it might be nice to try and share the guitar and the story with Cheryl while I was passing through Calgary on the way home – especially since her play featured music by friend-of-the-Six-String-Nation Kris Demeanor and Foggo's daughter, Miranda Martini. So I reached out by email and much to my delight she was available and suggested a meet-up.

Cheryl and I had a lot to talk about and had a wide-ranging conversation about everything from John Ware to songwriting to public broadcasting. I'm hopeful that one day we'll be able to make some kind of collaborative presentation including Kris and Miranda and the guitar that links us all together. In the meantime it was a pleasure just to meet and to hear about the academic work Cheryl is doing which is on the verge of revealing some undiscovered facts about the life of Canada's most legendary black cowboy. There are details that will impact the presentation that I give at schools and conferences across Canada and I will look forward to sharing them in this space as Cheryl publishes her research.

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Alberta Homecoming Part Three: John Ware’s Cabin

Fred Hammer, Dinosaur Provincial Park Ranger The final homecoming this trip to southern Alberta made possible was a visit to John Ware's cabin. Ware was an African-American cowboy who arrived in Alberta in the late 1800's and established himself as a respected rancher and businessman. His prowess on horseback might have been enough of a foundation for his legacy but his gentle manner, his resilience, his feats of strength, his political savvy, his business acumen and his fatherhood all contributed to the making of a legend. There are many monuments and tributes to him in this part of the province but in particular his cabin has been preserved and was moved from its original location in Brooks AB to nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park. Ranger Fred Hammer (pictured) had been my contact for obtaining a small piece of wood from the cabin, which is now mounted on the face of Voyageur as an element of the pick-guard, so I was keen to make the pilgrimage.

The drive between Hand Hills and Brooks is clearly ranching and farming territory: long straight roads defining vast stretches of farming and grazing land dotted with cattle and horses. It was not hard to imagine Ware working this land. But then something very very weird happens as you approach the Park. There is evidence of some.... topography...on the horizon. You enter the park, climb a very short rise and round a bend in the road and all of a sudden a massive bowl is revealed and you feel like you have been transported to another planet. A UNESCO World Heritage site and the source of an astonishingly diverse collection of dinosaur fossils that have found their way to museums around the world, it appears you are looking at a vast, empty Cretaceous-era inland sea and it's not hard to imagine the prehistoric life that would have inhabited its waters and gathered at its shores. It is perhaps an unlikely location for an early 20th Century cabin but had it not been moved there it might not have been preserved at all. With the resources of the Provincial Park and the restoration expertise of Parks Canada, the cabin is accessible to a large number of visitors as evidence of an important figure in Black History in Canada and a giant in the society of Alberta as it moved into Province-hood in 1905.

Thanks to Fred Hammer and the rest of the staff at the Park – and to the nice Dutch tourists who came over to discover Voyageur and take back a few photos of a part of Canadian history they did not expect to find at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

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Alberta Homecoming Part Two: Hand Hills

Hand Hills Lake Community Hall Part of my unofficial goal for the Six String Nation project is to eventually visit Voyageur to all the places from whence it has come. This trip to southern Alberta has been a prodigal hat trick - first with our visit to the Kainai First Nation - source of the ammolite buffalo skull mounted inside the guitar. I set of early this morning in hopes of visiting two more material sources before I had to be at a meeting in Calgary.

My first stop was Hand Hills Lake - 38km east of Drumheller – site of Alberta's longest running pro rodeo founded by J.J. Miller in 1917, the Hand Hills Lake Stampede. Rancher and fourth generation Stampede committee member Blake Morton provided us with a piece of floorboard from the old Community Hall that sits between the lake and the rodeo grounds at the bottom of Township Rd 29-4. Blake and I had a great phone conversation a couple of days ago but he was to be away from the ranch on cattleman's business today so we didn't get a chance to meet. However, I made my way over a lot of country roads and down to the rodeo grounds, where I found the community hall (pictured) in a pretty sorry state of repair. I didn't see the new community hall but wherever it is, I imagine it would be a much more comfortable place to be on a hot day. Nonetheless, I'm so glad I got to drive those roads and see this place - even when it's not at its most alive.

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Leaving Lethbridge

Raymond Jr. High Voyageur enthusiasts Most of the fields around Lethbridge have a kind of shorn, russet-y look. People are working overtime to get the potatoes harvested, leaves are turning and this morning there was frost on the windows of the rental car. To borrow a phrase:
Winter Is Coming.

Probably appropriate, then – after such a bountiful series of presentations at 14 schools in the region plus the concert in Vulcan plus last night's Friends of the Foundation dinner – that today was the final stop on this magnificent tour put together by my friends at the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta - the Junior High down in Raymond, a little closer still to the U.S. border.

Principal Cory Bevans and librarian Sally Roberts helped me get set up in the crows nest tech booth cantilevered over the bleachers in the gym. Everyone seemed a bit doubtful that they knew what they were doing but it all worked perfectly. The presentation went really well with performances on Voyageur by student Paisley Perrett and teacher Ryan Heseltine (a saxophonist by training so I especially appreciated his foray on the six string). Many students came up afterwards to touch various parts of Voyageur and a sizeable bunch seemed to just stick around so we put together the informal "class" picture above.

Heading back in to Lethbridge I stopped in at Lucky Star Guitars to say my goodbyes to owner Mike Christou, who also came to last night's Foundation dinner. While I was there, Allan Wilson - guitarist in the band of last night's emcee, Dory Rossiter (CTV regional weather anchor): Dory & the Weathermen – dropped in and played Voyageur for a while, followed by Pincher Creek guitarist Jay Collins. Mike also showed me his first stringed instrument - a gorgeous little mandolin made for him in Alert Bay. I felt I could have stayed all afternoon.

From there, a swing by the Foundation office for farewells and a final toast of Prosecco with the extraordinary staff who did such a great job pulling this tour together and giving me the privilege of meeting so many people in so many communities in this beautiful part of Canada.
A heartfelt thanks to George Hall, Erin Vogt, Joey Going and Deb Stoltenberg.
Now it's early to bed for an early morning setting off, frost scraper at the ready.
Winter is coming.

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Any Friends of the Foundation…

Lauren Follet plays for the Foundation Dinner Last night's "Friends of the Foundation" dinner was the lynchpin of all the school visits we've been doing here in southwestern Alberta these past two weeks. Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta executive director George Hall had seen my presentation at the Community Foundations of Canada conference in Winnipeg last year and called to see how we might be able to bring the presentation to this annual dinner in Lethbridge. Our conversation lead to this remarkable tour of this beautiful part of Canada and (by the end of today) presentations to over three thousand students in the region. So last night was not only an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the tour but to share the presentation with all the staff, executive, alumni and supporters of the CFLSA. I've been perhaps relying on readers to click the links to learn more about the work of Community Foundations here and across the country but, in a nutshell, the CFs channel funds from donors - whether they are one time donations from living individuals or legacy bequests, whether they are anonymous or open or targeted by the donor - towards project in the community. I can say that I have seen first hand in so many communities on this tour some of the extraordinary ways the Foundation puts these funds to work – from school band instruments and theatre equipment to a storage shed for the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball, from the revitalization of a community hall to the conversion of an abandoned church building into a vital local community centre. They are projects large and small but each of them contributes to the vitality of communities and I've been proud that the CFLSA has seen the message of the Six String Nation project as a valuable contribution to communities in this region.

University of Lethbridge music prof Dale Ketchison provided pre-show guitar music during last night's dinner but we stealthily slipped in a few pieces performed on Voyageur - partly so he could get a chance to play it (and as a nylon string player, that's quite something - hope your fingers are OK today, Dale!) and partly so we could slip the tone and feel of Voyageur into the proceedings without spoiling the surprise of the presentation. The presentation itself went extremely well. If not for the carpet on the floor of the Lethbridge Lodge ballroom you could have heard a pin drop. And it was great to hear the laughter coming back at some of the more mature references thrown into the presentation. The "performance pocket" was filled by G.S. Lakie Middle School student Lauren Follet (pictured) who'd had a chance to play her song on Voyageur earlier in the day at her school presentation.

Very special thanks to CFLSA board president Dianne King for her thoughtful opening remarks and to George Hall, Erin Vogt, Joey Going and the rest of the CFLSA staff and volunteers who did such an extraordinary job organizing not only last night's event and my whole southwestern Alberta tour, but did it in the midst of releasing "Vital Signs", the organization's most high profile annual report.
Thanks also to Brent for handling sound, Chris for shooting video, Kurt for taking photos, the University of Lethbridge Bookstore for handling book sales and Berthe for scoring me a glass of wine at the end of it all, even though the bar had closed!
And, of course, thanks to all of the folks who came up to talk and share stories, meet Voyageur, have photos taken and get books signed. It was a pleasure to meet you all. Thanks for all your good work in this great community. Now, it's off to my last school presentation event in Raymond AB...

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A Reunion at G.S. Lakie

Blake Lough, GlobalTV Lethbridge In preparing for these ten days of events in the Lethbridge area, I asked Erin Vogt of the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta about likely weather. She said: "It's southwestern Alberta - you might get four seasons in one day!". Of course, I checked my weather app as well and it suggested good weather for the long range forecast so I ignored her advice in favour of packing lighter. And honestly, except for one day and a couple of hours of rain, the weather has been phenomenally good. This morning I awoke to snow on the ground! Fortunately, not enough that I had to clear any off the rental car and not enough that I couldn't make the walk from the parking lot into G.S. Lakie Middle School in Lethbridge in my Six String Nation T-shirt.

What an amazing facility is this school - with different wings radiating off the central rotunda where they have a stage and a fully theatre-equipped crows nest, lighting rig, follow-spots, etc. Guitar teacher Sheldon Arvay helped get us all set up and ready to go with plenty of time to spare. And so with that time before students began to arrive, GlobalTV Lethbridge reporter Blake Lough (pictured) set me up for an interview. Now, I do believe it's true that everyone who encounters Voyageur will have some connection to it - whether it's a piece of material its made from, a place that its from, a place its been, a person who's played it, a song that's been sung on it, whatever – but Blake had an extra special connection: he was one of the student players when I gave the presentation at Arnprior District High School in Ontario on April 4th, 2011! So it was a nice little reunion as well as a fine interview.

It was an incredibly attentive audience today, though some teachers expressed some frustration that we didn't present to the whole school since there were so many relevant curriculum links that kept popping up. That's OK. I wouldn't have traded the great experience today and we'll try to make sure we get an opportunity to come back and do this again another time!

The "performance pocket" in the presentation was beautifully filled by student Lauren Follet, who will also be the performer for this evening's presentation at the CFLSA "Friends of the Foundation" dinner so I'll be sure to post some photos of her playing there.

Thanks to all the very enthusiastic staff and students who came up to talk and meet Voyageur after the presentation and a special thanks to student Noel Richardson for tech operations during the show and kind words after.

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