Last Stop on the @CRRF Road Show #CBECAP

The CRRF road team in Calgary Yesterday was the third and final stop in a series of events put together by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in collaboration with the Winnipeg, Halton and Calgary boards of education. This was a great group of people to work with and - while it is naturally sad to come to the end of our time together and I wish we could do more events across the country - there is a whole other level of bittersweetness to the end of this collaboration.

First, a little background on the Foundation:
Back in 1988, the Government of Canada and the National Association of Japanese Canadians signed the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. It was a way to acknowledge and atone for the terrible injustices suffered by Canadians of Japanese heritage during the second world war. Perhaps the most generous and optimistic gesture to come out of that agreement was the formation of a national foundation dedicated to the elimination of racism in Canadian society. The federal government proclaimed the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act into law on October 28, 1996 and the Foundation officially opened its doors in Toronto in November 1997. (That's current CRRF Executive Director Anita Bromberg pictured holding Voyageur in the centre of our little gang). Given the dedication of Six String Nation to similar principles of openness and inclusion and given the presence of the swatch of fabric from the Vancouver Asahi baseball jersey in the collection of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre that shares its offices with the CRRF, I was especially honoured to be asked to participate in this three-event program.

So the events worked like this: the local boards assembled groups of student leaders to participate in a day dedicated to learning about ways to fight racism, homophobia and other forms of exclusion in their schools and communities and bussed them to a central location. The day started with the Six String Nation presentation as a way of introducing the students to at least one way of confronting stereotypes and creating a vision for a deeply inclusive Canada. After that, the students broke out into groups to do workshops with Matthew Johnson (pictured next to me, second from left) about applying critical thinking to media and social constructions that lead to scapegoating, othering, and various forms of bias; Rani Sanderson (pictured right) on finding ways to articulate and express your own personal story as a way of connecting with others; and Cat Criger (pictured second from right) on how to employ an indigenous way of looking at the world every day and in all facets of life. It all wrapped up with an inspiring challenge to participating students from equity and human rights speaker, author and songwriter Chris D'Souza (pictured, rear) to take the lessons of the day back into their schools and communities with real passion. Chris played Voyageur as part of that closing address.

We met some great students (and teachers and administrators) at each event and from sitting in on all the workshops I know that the students got a lot out of the experience. But here's the really bittersweet part of this whole thing for me:
I remember thinking as a kid that there was no way racism would survive as a way of looking at people and the world. It just seemed an enormous amount of negative energy required to sustain a worldview that made no sense, had no basis in fact and poisoned the whole environment even for those who held that view. It just seemed like a spent force that would disappear as the world progressed. And yet, while we were doing the event in Winnipeg, Anita had to excuse herself from the room to deal with phone calls about vandalism at mosques and synagogues in various parts of Canada and a white-supremacist demonstration planned in Alberta. At the event in Milton, Chris told me that his kid's hockey team had decided that they wouldn't stand behind his own brown-skinned son if the team was somehow detained at the U.S. border on the way to a tournament in Detroit. Donald Trump took another crack at his travel ban, the Canadian Girl Guides and the Toronto District School Board announced cancellation of planned trips to the U.S., and coming back from dinner our first night here in Calgary we learned of the terrorist attack in London.

I really enjoyed my time working with these great people and I feel like we accomplished what we set out to do but it's so very clear that so much more needs to be done and in this climate, the problem I thought would be all but gone by the time I was an adult, seems more monumental than ever.

Thanks to my teammates and to all of the participants in Winnipeg, Milton and Calgary. Thanks also to everyone at the CRRF, including Suren Nathan and Len Rudner for pulling together all the details. And a special thanks to Paul Delaney for getting the whole ball rolling.

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Historical Contribution from….. the @TrailerParkBoys

Trailer Park Boys contribution You might recall that back in November I paid a visit to the Trailer Park Boys in Nova Scotia to be their guest on Episode 70 of the TPB Podcash. What I didn't mention in my account of that adventure was that - just like Chris Hadfield gave me his mission patch after our time together - the Boys each gave me something of theirs as a souvenir at the end of the show. You didn't think I was going to keep that from you, did you? Of course not! But I did want to make sure that I incorporated those contributions into the project in some significant way before spilling the beans. I am pleased to report that that work is done and we're ready to share the news with the world. First of all, to the contributions themselves: Ricky is frequently seen in that houndstooth bowling-style shirt. He gave us a swatch of fabric from that; Julian is always seen in his muscle-tight black T. He gave us a swatch of one of those; Bubbles is famous for his specs but just as central to his look are his scruffy Chaplin-esque leather boots. He gave us the tongue from a pair. Once I had these pieces back in Toronto, I met up with textile artist Holly Boileau - like all of the textile artists who've contributed their work to the project, she's another Harbourfront Centre Craft Studio alumnus. Holly and I discussed how to best present this material somewhere on the strap or in the case. Once we'd determined what real estate to occupy, Holly went off to consider the possibilities and I'm absolutely thrilled with the results... The Grenfell Mission was established in St. Anthony, Newfoundland in the late 1800s providing medical support to underserved communities. At the same time, they created a foreign market for locally produced textile crafts made using a traditional and idiosyncratic rug-hooking technique. This proved to be a powerful economic empowerment tool especially for women in precarious outport communities not only in Newfoundland but throughout the Atlantic provinces. It was a way of making valuable items out of scrap materials. Many of the pieces created for this market remain highly valued among craft and folk art collectors and inspired future generations of famous, feminist Canadian artists including Nancy Edell, Joyce Wieland, Jackie Winsor and Miriam Schapiro. It may seem like a big gap between the Boys of Sunnyvale Trailer Park and Canadian feminist art stars but both seem to have found a way to look at the commonplace and see the art that lies within and I'm glad that the connection is made right there on the strap that holds Voyageur! Thanks again to the Trailer Park Boys, Swearnet.com, Bob Stamp and Holly Boileau.

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Tuning In at McMaster

Jowi with Logan Churchill, Sonia Leung and Simon Edwards Back in October, McMaster University librarian David Kidney had me out to Hamilton to speak to a gathering of his colleagues at the Royal Botanical Gardens, David Braley & Nancy Gordon Rock Garden. Not only did the idea for an event for students and alumni take root on that day but that second event ended up being hosted at the David Braley Athletic Centre right on campus at Mac this past Thursday evening.

The event was billed as "Tuning in to Canada's Stories" - part of a series of events marking Canada's sesquicentennial. It was a fascinating group in attendance: staff, students, alumni, foreign students, kids, parents - all in what might have been an imposing and cavernous gymnasium made cosy not only by the curtained tech set up but by the people in the room.

The presentation went wonderfully and I got so many great stories from attendees who came up to get their portraits taken following the event. I often say that I haven't met anyone yet who doesn't have some connection to the project - whether that's a piece that's in the guitar, a place that it's from, a place that it's been, a person who's played it or a song that's been sung on it. That was certainly the case at McMaster - even the students from Iran who had only been in Canada for a few months, with whom I connected over the Kamkars - a family of musicians from their hometown of Shiraz and with whom I'd worked on a show some years ago!

The group of students/alumni who played in the "performance pocket" of the presentation was truly extraordinary. As a professional acoustic engineer, Simon Edwards (pictured next to me, second from the right) would no doubt have been impressed with technician Hana Dampf, who managed to craft excellent sound in the normally acoustically hostile environs of a gymnasium. Simon went first and got things off to a great start. Simon joins another dozen or so people who've played Voyageur who have also appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman". And you know Simon is a proud McMaster alumni because he's even wearing his McMaster T-shirt on his Letterman appearance from 2012!

Sonia Leung (holding Voyageur was next up. She did a wonderful rendition of a song by Lights - great playing and beguilingly airy and agile vocals. We'll have to look for her on "Colbert"!

Last up was Logan Churchill. At soundcheck, Logan changed a string on Voyageur in the amount of time it would take me to take the string out of the box. For his performance he moved the guitar to an open tuning and experimented with a variety of pull-offs, fretwork and percussive effects. The instrument was really singing and he managed a whole choir of voices out of it - fantastic and symphonic and a great finale to the performance segment.

Thanks to all three players for doing Voyageur proud and to Anne Plessl and Meggie MacDougall, who organized the event on behalf of the McMaster Libraries and the McMaster Alumni Association respectively. Thanks also to our photo station volunteers, Chris Pickard and Lori Moulden, and to the Campus Store for coming out to sell books.
And special thanks, of course, to everyone who came out to be part of the evening and part of the story of this project.

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Stories, Jim Byrnes and Why #BCTourismMatters

Jim Byrnes in Victoria @TIABC
I'll never forget the time back in 2012 in Prince George BC when I did the presentation for the annual conference of the Northern BC Tourism Association. The mayor of Masset - on Haida Gwaii - was in the audience and the story of the Golden Spruce that forms the top of the guitar had an extra emotional impact on me, on him and on so many in the audience that night. So I was so much looking forward to doing the presentation this past Friday for the conference of the larger Tourism Industry Association of BC in Victoria - I knew that there would be people from that earlier audience among the group and we'd have an even greater chance to have that story resonate among a group of people who really care about telling the story of British Columbia in a visceral way for their own visitors - whether they be hoteliers or wineries or adventure companies or hostels or campgrounds.

Sure enough, the story of the Golden Spruce and many others resonated with the audience but stories really were flowing in all directions that day. Our old friend, bluesman Jim Byrnes added a couple of his own stories with a couple of powerful songs in the "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation and TIABC CEO Walt Judas made a really compelling case about why tourism matters in the global context of being able to share each other's stories as a balm against the division and xenophobia that seems to be re-asserting itself around the world these days. But the stories really continued to flow in the anteroom where Doug and I were set up to do portraits with attendees. So many people had stories and connections to share but two really stand out:
one was J.J. Belanger, who let me know that his father, Pierre, had been the announcer at the Montreal Forum the night of the famous "Richard Riots" in March of 1955 and again the following year when the mighty Habs took the Stanley Cup back from the Detroit Red Wings;
the other was Alistair McLean - the death of whose brother, Stuart McLean, had so saddened the country just over a week earlier. Alistair came up to thank me for the presentation and suggest that we might find something of Stuart's to become part of the strap or case. We are pursuing that conversation but mostly I was glad to be able to share with Alistair the story I shared with the audience of teachers on February 17th in Ottawa: that the presence of the wooden nickel from the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls was there as a direct result of having heard Stuart's masterful telling of the story of Roger Woodward's survival of his trip over the Falls as a young boy while the older Woodword listened silently on the other end of a phone line in Alabama. Funny how a tourist attraction in Niagara Falls formed a link at a tourism conference in BC!

Thanks so much to our volunteers at the portrait station, Stanley, Matt, Jonathan and late-inning pinch hitter Vince. Thanks to the amazing AV crew from [....] for great sound and projection in the main room and a very special thanks to Nora Cumming of Chemistry Consulting for being so great to work with in organizing this event with my friends at the National Speakers Bureau. Thanks also to Louise MacDonald of the Victoria Community Foundation and Louise Roulstone and Paul O'Brien for stopping by for portraits and to my sister, Annalisa, and nephew and niece, Callum and Anika, for giving me a reason to stay in beautiful Victoria for an extra day!

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Bayview Glen Independent

Staff, student and special guest players at BGISWell, now you've met Scott Milligan in the previous post, prepare to meet the extraordinary cast of characters he assembled for my three presentations over the course of a day at Bayview Glen Independent School. And not just any day - February 15th is actually Flag Day in Canada, when we celebrate the adoption of our iconic Canadian flag in 1965. Students had already done a lot of work around the topic - as well as background research on Six String Nation - so I arrived to find many students with handmade flags as well as a banner depicting Voyageur in great detail!

BGIS is on the edges of Canada's first planned community of Don Mills - just a few blocks away from where I grew up. The development of the area over the past 40 years or more largely obscures what a rolling, bucolic oasis it must have been at one time but BGIS, nestled behind the Prince Hotel and just down the street from the SOCAN headquarters, manages to preserve some of that sense - especially in their airy, glass-walled lunch room but also in their independent approach to education. My visit there brought together multiple learning threads and seemed to fit right into the school's ethos and mandate.

I was especially excited that Scott made quick use of a new tool I've developed in collaboration with Esri Canada using their ArcGIS Online mapping software. It's an activity that lets students create their own maps of Canada using the elements of the Six String Nation project - from the guitar, case and strap - as a kind of navigation device to focus in on their own areas of interest while at the same time discovering more about the project and more about Canada from a variety of perspectives. They had launched into their first round of activity with the tool just before I arrived to set up so I'm not sure yet about the results but the first impression was that it was a bit of a hit and I hope this will provide encouragement for us to roll out the other two activities we have planned and get some feedback from students and teachers about how it's working for them.

I gave three presentations to the Upper, Lower and Prep divisions of the school in their well-equipped theatre. For each presentation, Scott had lined up an array of players drawn from the student body, staff and special guests. Pictured here along with Scott are music teacher Danny Sargeant (in the "Canada" hoodie) and 12th Fret guitar guru David Martin. Student players included Carla Haddad, Gideon Beck, Juliet and Isabella DiMenna, Sebastian Altmid, Jaden Rawlins and Aidan Snaiderman. Not pictured in this group was student Arun Jolly Marlier, whose extraordinarily strong instrumental and vocal performance of Kodaline's "All I Want" was such a hit at the first presentation that they brought him back for an encore at the third!

So thanks to all of those players who did such a great job and some of the parents who attended the presentation and cheered on their talented kids. Thanks, too, to all of the students who were such an attentive and appreciative audience. Thanks also to all of the teachers and administration at BGIS who were so very welcoming to me and so clearly dedicated to their students in so many ways. And, of course, thanks to Scott Milligan for getting the whole ball rolling and building some wonderful momentum for the Six String Nation project at Bayview Glen Independent School. I hope we'll be invited back to meet the next generation!

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Building a Relationship

Scott Milligan w/ Voyageur and Milligan1 I feel like I really need to set up my account of my trip to Bayview Glen Independent School with a whole separate blog, so here we go:

The guy in the picture is Scott Milligan, a teacher at BGIS. He's also a student at the Canadian School of Lutherie embarking on his first full-fledged guitar-building project.

The CSL and 6SN have been on each other's radar for quite a while and they had a copy of the Six String Nation book hanging around the shop. One day, perhaps while waiting for some glue to dry or something like that, Scott noticed the book and started thumbing through it. The teacher part of him got inspired at that point to see about bringing me in to do a presentation at BGIS and the student part of him got further inspired to complete his first guitar, Milligan 1 (that's the one in his left hand, Voyageur's in his right) - a classic case of worlds colliding! So the trip to BGIS was also an occasion to get these two axes together and finally get to meet Jeremy Nicks from the CSL, who came to watch the whole thing.

So, now that you've met the inspiration behind the inspiration for my day at BGIS.... on to the next entry!

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A Royal Return @RoyalSGC

Owen Barney The last time I did the Six String Nation presentation for the students of Royal St. George's College in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood was back in 2011 at their public speakers series. But a few months earlier there'd been a fire in the school's historic chapel on Howland Ave., so our event took place at the Walmer Baptist Church a few blocks away. Emma Totten, the school's Coordinator of Global Partnerships and Real World Connections, had been the organizer of that earlier series and she got in touch with me a few months ago about coming back this year to launch the school's sesquicentennial activities. This would be my first visit to the actual school site but Emma Totten would prove to be just one of many lines of continuity I discovered over the course of two presentations at the all-boys school yesterday.

The first presentation - for the more senior students - took place in the beautifully restored chapel where they'd brought in a rear-screen projection system for the occasion. It has been so grey here in Toronto the last few weeks that it was easy not to be able to anticipate the impact on the screen of sunlight coming in through the stained glass windows. In fact, the effect was quite striking - though not ideal for the presentation. Fortunately, by the time we'd finished our tech check and filled all the seats the sun had moved around the building sufficiently that the screen was visible to most.

The "performance pocket" in the presentation was handled by student Owen Barney (pictured), who was quite a revelation. He sang two songs - including Neil Young's "Helpless". It's a song I've heard students play at many other schools but never quite like this. I was told later that he'd been a bit of a novel phenomenon in his younger years in the school as a pre-pubescent country singer and accomplished guitarist. But staff wondered if he'd have the same charm once his voice broke. They needn't have wondered. He has brilliant pitch and tone and a real feeling for the songs that came through with confidence and easy musicality. Apparently, he's performing as a solo artist outside of school and I wouldn't be surprised if we started to hear more about him from the local music scene and beyond in the years ahead.

I confess I almost always feel that I've managed to touch on relevant stories and core Canadian values in my presentation but - as Headmaster Stephen Beatty pointed out in his closing remarks - to have these values of connection and inclusion reinforced following the weekend's murders in the mosque in Quebec City seemed especially resonant for all of us in the room and I was very grateful for the opportunity to be part of that common feeling.

For the afternoon presentation to the junior boys, we moved into the small black box studio under the main building. Before the presentation even started there were a parade of staff coming to say hello: art teacher Myles Vivares came by to make the connections between his immigrant experience, his love of the Fairmount bagel from his years in Montreal and his association with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry - all reflected in Voyageur; French teacher Rachel DeBlois came and got me to sign a copy of the textbook she wrote for RK Publishing called "Tu Parles", which includes a whole section on Six String Nation; and student Jamie Stephenson-Smith and his mother Janet - a teacher at the school - came by to get their picture taken with Voyageur. We are related by family connections and I'd met Janet before - though never Jamie, who has known about me and the project since he was little; and then Headmaster Beatty came into the room bearing the official portrait we'd taken of him and his daughter back in 2007 when he was principal at Montcrest School. He let me know that his daughter is now in university - GULP! The presentation went very well and - yet again - the students were engaged and attentive and participated beautifully under the direction of music teacher Emily Johnson, who performed Bryan Adams's "Summer of 69" and a sing-along rendition of "This Land Is Your Land".

Thanks once again to Emma Totten and all the staff and students at RSGC for making me feel so welcome. Thanks also to Chris Ramnath from StageVision who handled the tech in the Chapel and Christopher Newton (no, not that Christopher Newton) who assisted with tech in the studio theatre. Oh, and thanks to the kitchen staff for the delicious lunch!

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Thinking Indigenous in Bancroft #NHHSIndigenous #trc

Smoke Trail Singers It's perhaps not surprising that 2016 is getting defined as a year people would rather forget. And sure there were some shocking losses and conflicts and turns of events but - when you think about it - every year has those! And those end-of-year lists have a way of relegating important events - both good and bad - to oblivion if they don't make the top 20. For me, one of the most interesting things about 2016 is that is was the year that the results of Canada's Truth & Reconciliation Commission were really put into the hands of the general public. While the findings were released in 2015, the initial focus was - quite rightly - on the reaction of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. But now it's everyone's responsibility to do something about it - for a genuine, wide-ranging and honest dialogue to take place among all Canadians with indigenous peoples. Obviously, Gord Downie's "Secret Path" project is a very high profile example of people taking up that challenge but the tools for engaging in the conversation need to be developed in young people across the country. Which is why I was so delighted to be asked to give a couple of presentations yesterday at the "Think Indigenous - Reconciliation in Education" special events day at North Hastings High School in Bancroft, Ontario. In so many ways, I believe the materials and stories of indigenous origin that weave through the Six String Nation story are a kind of model for how to have this conversation: ie., not as something separate from the lives of other Canadians but something foundational to all of us and without which we really can't be the nation we'd like to be.

I was set up in the gym at the end by the stage. At the other end, displays and info tables hosted by a variety of visiting indigenous and Métis groups. I didn't get out of the gym during my stay but throughout the school were other workshops and special classes being run throughout the day. Our end of the gym was shared with a couple of dance and drum groups who performed and offered participatory workshops with the students and teachers at a few points during the day - I even got into a couple of circle dances myself! I was especially pleased to meet Bruce Smoke and his extended family who were there as the Smoke Trail Singers (pictured), who provided information, insight and powerful entertainment in equal doses.

The "performance pockets" in each of my presentations were ably filled by students Evan Bull, Sam Rumleski and Jenny Moffitt as well as teachers Steve Bereza (who did an original song dedicated to healing and reconciliation) and Adam Palmer (who did Tragically Hip's "Fiddler's Green" - and also coordinated all of the music and tech!).

Thanks to all the staff, students and participants at North Hastings High School - especially those who worked with local First Nations volunteers to prepare the most spectacular lunch of local specialties. Special thanks to teacher Heather Taylor, who initiated my visit to Bancroft and Scott Shortly, First Nations Métis Inuit Student Success and Instructional Coach for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board, with whom I had some great conversations over the course of the day. Special thanks also to Bruce Smoke and his family and our kickass emcee, Raven Murphy.

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A DECENT Time with the @TrailerParkBoys

Jowi and Voyageur meet the Trailer Park Boys My good friend and erstwhile collaborator Bob Stamp moved to a nice little spot on the edge of Halifax a few years ago. As one of the premier lighting designers for live events, film and TV production in Canada - and with a burgeoning career as a producer - he soon found his services in demand in the budding Nova Scotia film biz. And, of course, one of Nova Scotia's main film and TV exports is the Trailer Park Boys so he eventually encountered their production company, Swearnet, too and ended up sharing the Six String Nation book with TPB showrunner, Preston Hudson. As Preston later told me, he's not only a guitar player, he's a "wood guy" - loves working with it, smelling it, feeling it, being around it - so he had a very natural interest in the project and got the Boys interested too.

The invitation to be on the Trailer Park Boys Podcast came very quickly - like, this-is-Tuesday-are-you-free-Thursday-? quickly. So I got myself on a Porter flight to Halifax yesterday and Bob picked me up at the airport.

We hung out in the greenroom for a bit talking to Preston and other passers-through while the Boys wrapped up another podcast and then we were lead up to the studio area. Before we actually got seated on the set, we talked through the show in the adjoining boardroom. I have to say, Robb Well, Mike Smith and John Paul Tremblay - the actors - were super nice and very normal guys, albeit a little bit burned out. They were on a marathon production schedule on the eve of a Scandinavian live tour - including a 4,500 seat venue in Oslo: who knew?

Of course once we got seated at the kitchen table set and tape was rolling, all it took was for Mike to put on his "Bubbles" glasses and all three were instantly in character. It was great to play along with Ricky, Bubbles and Julian in a completely ad-lib'd conversation but the highlight, of course, was to have Bubbles perform his classic, "Liquor & Whores" right there on Voyageur. At the end of our time together, I presented the Boys with a signed copy of my book and each of them presented me with a little something that I will write more about.................. in due time.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone at Swearnet for their kind hospitality and to Bob for getting the ball rolling and getting me from and to YHG for what was my briefest-ever trip to Nova Scotia!
If you'd like to check out the podcast episode, you'll find it here on iTunes and you should definitely check out the full range of TPB-related shows at SwearNet.com

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Grand Finale @FirstOntPAC @TheMandevilles @SuzieVinnick

Suzie Vinnick live at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre The last time I presented Six String Nation in St. Catharines was at the Niagara Arts Council common space on James St. The sense I got at the time speaking to the crowd of artists and musicians who gathered to hear the story was that they were a small but mighty group with lots of ideas but few places to play, few places to show, few places to go. A new arts centre had been approved but shovels were not yet in the ground. As I recall, there were a few restaurants and bars in the vicinity but not a whole lot going on in that quaint old part of town. Everything changed when the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opened just one year ago next week. Designed by the prolific Toronto firm of Diamond/Schmitt, the Centre has already created a whole new vibe in the downtown. And as a facility, there are few rivals in the province - it comprises four separate venues: a 775-seat concert hall, 300-seat recital hall, 210-seat dance/theatre venue, and a 187-seat film house (all of which I could tune into in my dressing room behind the Cairns Recital Hall!) all connected through a glorious, street-facing common lobby bar space. While the spaces are available to Brock University students and for commercial rentals, I was thrilled that on this trip to the Niagara region, the Six String Nation show was part of the Hot Ticket series of in-house programming. In fact, FOPAC was the lead institution that not only brought us in for our big show on Friday night but coordinated our activities with the Niagara Community Foundation for the school and community presentations you've been reading about all week.

Top-flight crew and equipment in the beautiful Cairns space meant I could really relax and stretch out with the presentation, which felt just fantastic (though it's perhaps it was that comfort zone that made me even more emotional in my delivery than usual!). The real thrill, though, was the work of all the musicians who brought Voyageur to life in this great new space.

First up, we kept the "performance pocket" segment in the presentation part of the show in the first half and my FOPAC hosts conceived a brilliant Facebook contest with help from sponsors the Niagara Community Foundation and Thorold Music to fill that slot. Hopefuls posted videos on FB as auditions to be the chosen performer and the winner was local spoken-word artist, Jamie Godard. Backstage, Jamie confessed to me that he had entered the contest a bit cynically. Like many people who encounter the Six String Nation project cursorily, he had kind of assumed it was a relic of patriotic Canadiana and yet his audition piece was decidely critical of many aspects of Canadian policy, action and inaction in areas like the environment, poverty and First Nations issues. So he kind of assumed his entry would be dismissed. But the folks at FOPAC (or whoever the jury consisted of) recognized not only the quality of his work but also that there were more affinities between our views of the Canadian project than perhaps Jamie was aware of and he was selected as the winner. Having seen the full presentation, his piece, "Hey Canada" had more particular resonances than he might have otherwise imagined and it proved to be a sharp and much appreciated start to the musical proceedings of the evening.

The second half of the show started with three tunes from the core writing duo of local band, The Mandevilles. Guitarist Nick Lesyk played Voyageur throughout - occasionally employing a loop pedal for some tasty solos - while singer Serena Pryne gave ample evidence as to why the band has been opening for the likes of Heart and Joan Jett: her voice is the real deal, pure rock and roll / rasp and growl.

And finally, of course, the wonderful and spectacular Suzie Vinnick (pictured). All of the awards and nominations are well deserved. For one thing, her guitar-playing is effortlessly wicked; for another, her own songs (or her co-writes, such as the one with Matt Anderson that was part of her set) sound like they are already part of the pantheon - cut from the same cloth as the classics but uniquely her own; and that voice - I could listen to her all day. She moves from sweet to sassy to searing in the blink of an ear - gentle, powerful, pleading, intimidating - whatever it needs to be to convey the pure emotion of the lyrics. She has long been one of my favourite people I've encountered during my time hovering around the Canadian music scene (along with her long time partner James Dean) so I was thrilled to meet a whole gaggle of her family and friends who turned out for the show as well and they were just as great as she is.

It was an extraordinary week in the Niagara region and I feel like we could have gone on and on for another week or more - perhaps a good excuse for a return visit. None of it would have been possible without the support of all the amazing people in the office at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, starting with Sara Palmieri, who - along with Michael Chess - first encountered the project (and had their portraits taken at the CAPACOA Conference back in 2010 when the Centre was just a hole in the ground); and also to Jordy Yack, Stéphanie Filippi, Kayley Corupe and Lisa Mancini, who did a brilliant job with the flyer. On the production side, big thanks to Rob Robbins and his amazing crew of Ethan Rising, Kevin Watson and Mel on the LX. Thanks also to Jennifer Hunt-Carbonara for looking after us backstage, Nathan Heuchan for handling merch sales and Thelma Forrester (also a teacher at Lincoln Centennial) for Front of House coordination. Thanks also to the ushers who generously stepped in at the last minute to handle volunteer duties at the portrait station, as did Thelma. I hope we will see you all again soon!

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