During the original research phase of the Six String Nation project back in the mid-to-late 1990s, I was determined that the guitar should include at least one piece of material from each province and territory that was of indigenous origin. That wasn't in response to anything (the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
was still a decade away) and it wasn't because I was especially involved with native people beyond having a few friends of native origin and having worked on a couple of First Nations events. I only decided to meet that minimum bar of inclusion because it always seemed to me that in most of popular culture – and, for that matter, most of the way Canadian history is taught in school – indigenous people and their culture and story was always presented separately - as if everything that happened to them after First Contact happened on some other planet rather than being intimately woven into the fabric of contemporary life. It was like everything about their history and culture was in a kind of tableau that required extra time and extra space to acknowledge or discover or engage with. I figured if we were going to build a guitar that might somehow capture the essence of a vast and diverse Canada then it had better damn well include contributions from indigenous people and communities on their own terms. Little did I know how profoundly that simple choice would establish the heartbeat of the whole project.
It was Shingoose (aka Curtis Jonnie)
who first suggested that I attempt to get a piece of an Indian Residential School to go into the construction of the guitar. He said that if we could do that, it might prove to be a powerful instrument of healing (and remember that this was pre-TRC). That suggestion spurred me to a whole other way of thinking about the stories that could inform the making of this guitar - not just from native contributors but from everyone. It meant that I wasn't stuck building some abstract compendium of glorious tokens representing our collective "best self" but rather combining both triumphs and tragedies, stories large and small, local and national, grandly historic and quietly representative of all of the people whose efforts have made some kind mark on their communities. It was that small but profound shift in direction that eventually lead to the stories and contributions of things like Joe Labobe's oyster shucking knife
and the monument to Almighty Voice
and the Hoito soup paddle
and the Golden Spruce
. And while it's been frustrating at times to deal with some people's apparent confusion over the name of the project (Them:
"So is this guitar from Six Nations then?" Me:
"No, Six STRING Nation - you know, like LEAF Nation or FAST FOOD Nation - except it's a guitar that has, you know, six strings
") or about why there would be so much aboriginal content in the guitar (Them:
"Why is there so much native stuff? Are YOU native? Me:
"You know, there's Rocket Richard's ring
and a seat from the Forum
and Paul Henderson's stick
and Wayne Gretzky's stick
but I'm not a hockey player either!")
So I've always been proud of and grateful for the contributions made by First Peoples to this project but last night was the best occasion I could possibly have imagined to celebrate those contributions among an audience that included so many prominent citizens from both native and non-native communities - including Chief R. Stacey LaForme
of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, outgoing Toronto Foundation CEO Rahul Bhardwaj
, author Joseph Boyden
and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell
. The event was a gala reception and show hosted by HRH Prince Charles's Prince's Charities Canada, Birch Hill Equity Partners
and their joint project Kiinago Biinoogi Muskiiki / Our Children's Medicine
in celebration of Canada's 20th annual National Aboriginal Day
. To be asked to participate was a huge honour (special thanks to John MacIntyre
at BHEP for being my champion on the inside) but to be asked to top out the show was just way beyond my expectations and actually made me more nervous than I've ever been doing my presentation. Fortunately, the audience was so warm and receptive that I really relaxed into it. As always, the "performance pocket" part of the presentation was a chance for the audience to hear Voyageur
brought to life and that was done by none other than the legendary Susan Aglukark
. She played Voyageur
for the first song and then handed it to guitarist Paul Chapman
who played it for a reprise of Aglukark's 1995 hit "O Siem". I tell you, seeing Doug Nicholson
's marvelous portraits of Canadians holding Voyageur
float across the screen as Aglukark sang "O siem we are all family..." was about as moving as I've ever seen doing this presentation.
There was also a special little bonus for us at this event: it was held in the spectacularly restored Carlu
- the former Timothy Eaton Auditorium
at College Park in Toronto. One of my favourite Voyageur in situ
photos of Doug's is of the guitar laid across Glenn Gould
's beloved Steinway Grand #CD318. The photo was taken in 2008 when the piano was in the collection of the National Library and Archives in Ottawa (in 2012 it was transferred to the collection of the National Arts Centre at the other end of Wellington St.). But Gould fell in love with CD318 in 1962 when he discovered it gathering dust behind a curtain backstage at the Eaton Auditorium just feet from where I was so honoured to do my presentation last night!
A very special thanks to the amazing team that put this event together and treated me so wonderfully: Josh Hellyer, Kelly Hashemi, Jessica Bentley-Jacobs, Lindsey Lickers
and Renn Conway
. Thanks also to our wonderful volunteers at our portrait station, Ellen Bidulka
and Clara Trudell
and the great tech team from Freeman
, who provided top of the line sound and visual support.
Sometimes it feels like a circle is just somehow not closed until certain people get their portraits taken with Voyageur
and I was delighted we got to close three of those circles last night with portraits of David Nowak, Rahul Bhardwaj
and Dawn Maracle
. Thanks to you and everyone else who lined up for their portraits - please follow us on Facebook
and you'll see a notification the moment this batch is ready for distribution.
And finally, thanks once again to my friends at the National Speakers Bureau
for looking after me and making sure great clients like this know that the Six String Nation presentation is right for their event (though, once again, special thanks to John MacIntyre
for adding weight from the other side of the equation!)
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, the guitarist and baritone opera singer I first met at an event at the Royal Conservatory of Music
back in 2007, is very active as a professional musician but he's also active as a volunteer in the musical life of his Toronto neighbourhood, Seaton Village - sometimes referred to as the West Annex. For the past two years, that meant volunteering his talents as a performer for the community-oriented Open Tuning: A Free Music Festival
. The festival is completely free and entirely volunteer run, with no paid advertising or corporate sponsorship or compensation of any kind. As a struggling artist, that can be a tough one but the connection with the community and the other participants makes it all worthwhile. And Doug embodies that. This year, he expanded his participation into taking on the activation of a new venue, the Palmerston branch of the Toronto Public Library. From the outside, it's a modest little building but the hidden gem is in the basement where a very decent raked theatre provides a great incubator for local theatre groups and presentations like mine.
Believe it or not, while I have done a number of school and corporate presentations in Toronto over the last couple of years (and all the regular club cameos), this was my first public presentation at home in quite some time and it proved a great opportunity for a few friends who still hadn't seen the show to come out and see it for the first time. Plus there were lots of new faces in the audience so it was especially gratifying that those folks took themselves out of the sunshine to come and see the presentation and hear the stories and the music.
And what music! Doug was responsible for putting together a few people to play Voyageur
as part of the presentation and he went above and beyond. My only disappointment was that one of the coolest women ever to have held Voyageur
was on the roster to play it for the second time but ended up not being able to come so it was all dudes. We started off with Tom Bellman
who left his jazz quartet behind for this performance. True to form, he lead with a Keith Jarrett
piece called "Memories of Tomorrow" but then - quite surprisingly - he played a beautiful original country tune called "Bottom of My Heart". Next up, Richard Garvey
- in from Guelph - played a couple of tunes including his signature, "Found a Box of Beer in the Snow", adding to Voyageur
's hoser cred (considering it's been played by Stompin' Tom, Corb Lund, Corin Raymond
et al.); Dan McLean Jr.
was a big, affable bear of a guy who wowed with some powerful and sweetly sensitive and soulful vocals on his two tunes; and Dexter Fowler
added a fiddler for his short set that nodded to Celtic roots with the Canadian chestnut, "St. Anne's Reel".
Now, I'm a huge fan of Charles Spearin
- not only for so much of his amazing work as a founding member of Broken Social Scene
and Do Make Say Think
but for his extraordinary work on The Happiness Project
, which is easily one of the most exciting and innovative musical explorations of the last decade. If you don't know it, check it out
. I was thrilled that he was keyed up to play Voyageur
and especially grateful that he made very public a musical moment that so many artists keep private when first encountering this guitar: over and over again I've watched artists take a few moments on their own before a performance just to kind of play random stuff to get a feel for the wood and the action and the sound and character of the instrument as they think about what they might want to play on stage. Charles brought that moment onto the stage with a short improvisation before going into his interpretation of Rush
's "Closer to the Heart". Admittedly, it's not the first time anyone has played the opening notes to that song on Voyageur
but I do believe it's the first time anyone has played it straight through. He actually tried to turn it into a sing-a-long, though the most enthusiastic participant in that part of things was the very little girl who escaped the laps of her mother and grandmother to come and sit next to me during Charles's performance and completely nailed the chorus when I put the mic in front of her!
MacNaughton himself performed two songs featuring his rich baritone voice and some very fancy capo work which allowed him to sustain some low notes while working the harmonics up high. One of his pieces paid tribute to both the Japanese-Canadian contributions to the project I'd hoped
to get and the piece I eventually did get from that community: Japanese-Canadian composer Leslie Uyeda
's "Flower Arranger" - a setting for a poem by the Vancouver-born author Joy Kogawa
. And finally, our old pal William Beauvais
finished things off with two pieces in a rare tuning that showcased his classical talents for sure but also hinted at some Yes
-era prog-rock chops lurking in there somewhere.
Thanks to Doug and all the musicians who participated - not only in this presentation but in the rest of the Open Tuning Festival across 15 locations in Seaton Village.
A very special thanks to librarian Iana Georgieva-Kaluba
and theatre technician Bobby Del Rio
, who has some awesome stuff going on
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The town of Bracebridge is the heart of the Muskoka region. Built around a waterfall on the Muskoka River, it was founded in 1875 and named after a place in a novel the postmaster general happened to be reading at the time. It's a pretty place and I often stop in there on my way back from travels north to sample some magnificent buttertarts. (Marty's? Rick's Maple? Raisins? Nuts? Runny? Firm? That's a whole other blog post!)
But, of course, before the settlers and the hydro station and the railroad and the steamships arrived, it was the traditional territory of both the Anishinaabe and Haudenoshauane people of Turtle Island. Part of the educational mission of Holly Groome
(pictured, centre) and Heather Truscott
(pictured, left) of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board
is to acknowledge this heritage and to try to weave these overlapping histories and identities together in the classroom in the spirit of Truth & Reconciliation.
So I was delighted when Holly got in touch with me to ask if I'd be able to come to Bracebridge to do a couple of events with a special focus on the First Peoples elements within the Six String Nation project. The fact is that I don't really need to adjust my presentation very much at all since there is already considerable attention paid to First Nations, Inuit and Métis contributions to the guitar and I think it's important to weave many stories from many different communities in Canada into the larger story of both Voyageur
and of who we are now as a society but I was glad for the opportunity to augment those elements a little - especially given that I am very excited about a special presentation coming up on National Aboriginal Day, June 21st, in Toronto. More on that later.
Holly and I started with some pretty ambitious plans but a packed event schedule for the Board this year forced us to scale back to two simple presentations - the first on Wednesday afternoon at Monck Public School
and a second one for the general public in the evening at the Rene M. Caisse Memorial Theatre
. The school presentation went very well with performances by student Jet Silva
(rock star name or what?) and teacher Ellen Yeo
, who did a masterful job of managing a real showbiz finale amid the chaos of the student exodus after the bell rang to get them to their buses during their last song.
Special thanks to Vice Principals Jen Richter
and Jen Clark
and the rest of the staff and students at Monck for a fine welcome. Thanks also TLDSB Director of Education, Larry Hope
who picked up dinner before the evening show!
I wasn't quite sure where the Theatre was and my (admittedly ancient and un-updatable) GPS claimed no such number on Clearbrook Trail so I followed Heather and Holly in my car after dinner. It turns out that it's built right into the Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes High School
where I presented almost exactly four years ago
. It was a small but attentive and enthusiastic audience, made even more so by two local students who filled the "performance pocket" in the presentation. Grade 11 student Graham Vandermolen
lead off with one of my all-time favourite songs, I Will Follow You Into the Dark
by The Postal Service
and grade 12 student Carter Pharoah
performed one of his own brand new compositions - a heartfelt and passionate tribute to Gord Downie
Thanks to Tracy Hoehner
for providing effortlessly perfect sound and visuals at the Theatre. Thanks to all the folks who stuck around after the presentation to chat and meet Voyageur
and Gail Froude
of the Muskoka Chautauqua
who really began the relationship between Six String Nation and the region almost a decade ago. And special thanks again to Holly and Heather and their colleagues at the Trillium Lakelands Distsrict School Board for making these events happen. We're already talking about coming back and doing even more next year and I'm already looking forward to it!
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Usually, when I'm writing in this space it's because I've been doing an event. When I do events with Voyageur
the response I get from audiences is visceral and nourishing like nothing else. You may also have noticed that there are sometimes large gaps between posts and what I'm not writing about during those times is the difficulty of trying to make a living doing this work and the demons of doubt and depression that creep in to fill those voids in activity. So connecting with audiences and sharing this story has a profound effect on me and my outlook on not only my own life but the sense that I have of the possibilities of a richly shared, deeply diverse picture of the Canadian story. It is a hard slog to get government or business or the wide variety of associations and organizations that are ostensibly built to think about these things to consider Six String Nation. But at events, the value of the project and the connections it makes are clearer than the clearest of days. And nowhere was that more true than yesterday here in Stony Plain.
In the large urban centres of Canada (or anywhere else for that matter) it's not hard to imagine that culture is this phenomenon that just happens within the marketplace. There is so much to see and do and so many people engaged in the creation and consumption of culture of one kind or another. But even then I'm reminded of the woman at the house concert in Toronto who said she assumed I traveled to schools to do my presentation without charging fees - out of the "goodness of my heart". And yet there we were among 50 others crammed into a Parkdale living room having bought tickets to be part of an intimate concert with Corin Raymond
who had raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to record his latest album of songs. Somehow the economics of the situation for creators in this country still managed to elude this person.
In smaller communities in Canada, the limitations of the power of the marketplace to support culture is more obvious - amidst a sea of "smart centres" and chain restaurants, how many people does a local restaurant serving local cuisine have to attract on a daily basis just to survive? As Cultural Development Officer for the Town of Stony Plain, Chantelle Held
's job is not only to think about this stuff herself, but to get others in the community to think about it as well and together to try to build a cultural framework woven into the economic and social fabric in a community that's pretty comfortable with where it's at and may not see the need to mind such matters.
But yesterday's presentation here really brought the whole effort into very sharp focus. Chantelle (pictured, right, with friend and Town of Stony Plain colleague Sandi Tkachuk
) got up to say a few words at the end of the presentation and the emotion I always seem to experience when telling the story was amplified several fold. She articulated beautifully how the example of the Six String Nation project embodies the kind of mission she feels in linking the people and histories of this community to each other by a variety of cultural means - not just for entertainment but to build a foundation for the community that can sustain it into the future. Well, of course, her emotion rippled back at me but we weren't done yet. All kinds of people came up to chat afterwards and express similar feelings about how the presentation touched them, including Stony Plain Museum director David Fielhaber
, other municipal employees and members of the general public. But perhaps no one told a more compelling story of her own connection to the project than Dianne Brown
Dianne grew up in the heart of Alberta's oil patch in its early days and now lives outside of town here. This is the first time she's seen the Six String Nation presentation so close to home but certainly not the first time she experienced it. As a director of the Servus Credit Union and of the North Central Co-op Board she saw the presentation at Co-op events in Saskatoon and Charlottetown. But her first time seeing it was in Prince George BC where the presence of the Mayor of Massett, Haida Gwaii, leant a special resonance to the presentation because of his connection to the Golden Spruce that is Voyageur
's top and that lit the fire for Dianne to explore her own family roots on Haida Gwaii. While she'd visited Normandy France to explore parts of her family history there several times, it was being at that presentation that aroused a deeper curiosity in her about the more obscure side of her family tree. And that opened up whole new adventures for her, including an extended visit to Haida Gwaii within the last few years.
These conversations about history and identity, community and culture are fundamental to the Six String Nation project. And while I'm always grateful to hear the stories people want to share after a presentation, I felt particularly blessed last night as Dianne and the Command
family and I shared dinner at at nearby steakhouse and got deep into the conversation from multiple perspectives. Thank you all for being part of that ongoing project of inventing ourselves as individuals, as communities and as Canadians.
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You might think this post would be about the famed Canadian folk record label built by broadcaster Holger Peterson
. After all, Friday night Stony Plain Records
celebrated their 40th anniversary with the launch of a documentary about the company. And, in fact, I'm not 40 minutes away from where they held the party in Edmonton. But I'm actually in the Town of Stony Plain AB, which is just west of the city here in Alberta's capital region. It turns out that Stony Plain - the record company - was named for the road in Edmonton where they were first established rather than here in this community but our event yesterday was evidence of a whole other music and cultural scene in this neck of the woods.
For the last couple of years, the Town has been issuing a report on the state of their cultural plan and cultural community with an event called the Cultural Summit and Cultural Development Officer Chantelle Held
arranged to have me come and speak at this year's edition (more on that in part 2).
Of course, whenever I do a presentation we have to arrange to have someone play Voyageur
in the "performance pocket" near the end and I was delighted that Chantelle brought in the Command Sisters
, who happen to live in the neighbouring community of Spruce Grove and who happened to not be in New York or Nashville or L.A. or China or any of the other places their career has taken them over the last couple of years.
Elder sister Charlotte
(standing between her dad, René
and me) is the lead singer and principle writer of the duo while Sarah
(next to mom, Karen
) provides gorgeous harmonies, wicked guitar solos and the business savvy of the group. I first met the girls a couple of years ago at our event with the Edmonton Community Foundation
at the Cinema Paradiso. I believe they'd already won that year's John Lennon Songwriting Competition
by that point and were being actively courted by some big wig managers and labels. Mom and dad have been with them every step of the way and while they've had a kind of dazzling adventure through the whole music biz scene, their very open, very honest rapport as a family means that they've put the integrity and well-being of the girls first and foremost. That's meant turning down some things that were probably too good to be true to begin with but I think they're all taking the long view of this career and it means they're doing very interesting things and gathering a lot of supporters along the way - including the Six String Nation.
In any case, the performance by the Sisters harmonized beautifully, harmonized with the Six String Nation story and harmonized as well with a wonderful feeling in the room where things definitely got emotional (see part two).
Thanks so much so Chantelle Held and the Town of Stony Plain for creating and hosting this event. Thanks to dear friends Ted & Sue
for coming in from their new home down the road in St. Albert. Thanks to my pals at the National Speakers Bureau
for handling the booking, to Jazz Matthews
for setting up the gear and doing the sound and to all of the people who came out to the event, came up to chat afterwards, take pictures and share their own stories and impressions - that's what it's all about!
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Over the years, I've presented at several regional heritage fairs and seen Six String Nation reflected back at me from the student perspective. On a couple of occasions, students planning a presentation about the project have reached out for additional info. Lucas Hung
and his dad, Victor
, got in touch about his project after Lucas' sister Iris
was the student elected to play Voyageur
as part of the presentation at her high school, Gleneagle S.S.
in Coquitlam BC. A year or two later, Abbie Hayward
called from Weyburn SK to ask if I'd do an audio intro for her heritage project presentation at her school - and I was glad to do it. Both of those students were clearly confident young people. They each won multiple awards for their work and I'm pleased and honoured that they chose to talk about Six String Nation for their projects. But there was something a little bit different about the message I got from Samantha Scott
in Oro-Medonte township just a few weeks ago. She started by introducing herself in an email and offering a bit of a resume of her achievements so far (they were numerous) and letting me know that she was going to be doing her grade 8 heritage fair project on Six String Nation. She went on to ask if there was a possibility for me to visit her school on short notice so that the other students might benefit from having the background of my presentation before she made hers. And then
she went on further to acknowledge the need to cover fees and suggest ways she'd planned for this and garnered support from her family and her school. There was no way I could turn her down and we started in making plans to vist W.R. Best Memorial Public School
in Shanty Bay Ontario late last week.
Normally, I'd have rented a car for the trip - about an hour and a quarter north of Toronto - but Samantha and her dad, Brian
, convinced me to let them pick me up so she could conduct an interview with me en route to supplement her project. Early last week, I got an email from Brian confirming details of the trip and the presentation at the school but letting me know that Sam wouldn't be joining us for the ride and might not even make it to the presentation. And she certainly wouldn't be playing Voyageur
in the "performance pocket" as planned. Among the many extracurricular activities she engages in (and excels at) is Acroyoga
(click the link for some beautiful - if somewhat hair-raising - images of the practice in action). Attempting a particular pose with a partner, Sam had taken a fall and earned herself a concussion. She'd been on bedrest for several days at that point and was still having trouble with bright lights, movement, etc. If there's a lesson I learned when my friend, singer Ariana Gillis
, had her concussion last year, it's that you can't rush the recovery. So I wanted to make sure Sam was going to take it easy. Still, after all the work she did lining up things at the school, she wanted to make sure the show went on.
Brian came to pick me up in the morning and we had a terrific drive to Shanty Bay. Brian himself has an extraordinary story and I could see where some of Sam's A-type quest for excellence and expressions of grit and determination might have come from. The drive went by like nothing and we arrived at the school just as Sam and her mom, Lee
, were getting out of their car. We all went into the gym together and had a chance to get some photos and for Brian and Sam and her sister, Sydney
, to play Voyageur
a little as we got set up for the presentation.
It's a small school with a very active music program (72 of their 340 students are in competition at Kiwanis this week!) and principal Eileen Carl
had invited the full grade range to participate in the assembly. For the "performance pocket", Sam's part was played my music teacher, Mr. Stormes
supported by the school ukulele club in a rendition of the American Authors
's "Best Day of My Life" with the whole assembly joining in on the "oh-oh-oh-oh oh-o-o-o" chorus. Young Jack & Anastasia
(pictured, centre, below) pulled off an amazing duet of Leonard Cohen
's "Hallelujah" - for real! And Jerry Moreau
, grandfather of one of the students, did a note-perfect version of "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash
(see if you can guess which one he is in the photo below!).
As usual, I want to thank all of the staff and students who helped make this such a great event but, honestly, so much of the credit for this must go to Samantha for her persistence in making this happen and to her parents and principal for supporting her initiative. She received the applause she got for her efforts that day but I know she was not feeling her best. So here's to her recovery in due time and in anticipation for the accolades I know she's going to get for all the other cool stuff she does at W.R. Best, at her new high school next year and in all her endeavors in the years to come!
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Things have changed since I was a student at Woodsworth College
. I mean, quite literally the building itself has changed with an addition to the original house on St. George and the creation of a residence facility next door on Bloor St., but also in terms of the college's place within the University of Toronto community. When I was a student there for most of the 1980s, Woodsworth was considered the part-time student and mature student college - almost a place for academic hobbyists. These days it is like any other college serving a very diverse group of full-time students - many of them new Canadians or foreign students - pursuing a variety of academic paths in arts and sciences. But part of the reason I took as long as I did to get my BA was that I wanted to take advantage of being at a great univers
ity that offered a universe
of interesting things to discover. While many students these days come into the university with their focus on a career track, the Woodsworth One Foundation program retains some of the college's original character as a place for conversation and discovery thanks to people like Brock MacDonald
(pictured, right), Vice-Principal of Woodsworth and Director of the Academic Writing Centre.
I've been involved in Woodsworth's Alumni-Student Mentorship Program for the past couple of years and I got on Brock's radar that way. He recently got in touch to see if I'd be willing to come in and speak to a group of students he meets with on a weekly basis to kind of expand their academic and extra-curricular horizons. This semester they'd been doing that through a wider conversation about popular music and popular culture and he thought Six String Nation would be a great fit.
We gathered in the Williams Waters lounge on the ground floor of the residence building (steps from the wonderful Cafe Mercurio
!) where I encountered a technology that has spoiled me utterly: the Crestron/ClickShare
system built into the room meant no hardwire connections into the projection equipment. If only all my set ups were that easy! Students drifted in on schedule and I was glad we had extra time as I did quite a few declensions and backstories throughout the presentation. When the "performance pocket" moment arrived, student Kristine Medrero
(pictured, left) stepped up to do a couple of tunes - including a little Glen Hansard
. Perhaps my favourite part of the afternoon, though, was the Q&A that followed. These are kind of rare for me these days in either the concert or the school settings - especially given that what most people want to do in any extra time is take pictures with Voyaguer
- but we had the latitude to delve into some questions that were clearly linked to the semester-long conversation they'd been having around issues of popular culture and Canadian identity and it was invigorating to participate in that discussion for even the short while we had.
Thanks to Brock for the invitation and to Kristine and all the attending students of the Woodsworth One program.
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It was all summed up in a single sentence uttered by Chantal Lavigne
, a civilian member of the Governor General's staff, as the shuttle bus carrying me and many of the other Meritorious Service Decoration
recipients and their guests passed through the gate and pulled up right in front of Rideau Hall: "This is your day. Enjoy yourselves." Amid all the nerves and preparations and grooming and worries about protocol, it was easy to forget that we were the ones being recognized for our work with this distinguished award. Not surprisingly, everything was meticulously arranged - every moment and movement considered for maximum decorum and smooth operation; not so it would be rigid but so that all the details that might overwhelm could move to the background and become a setting for the meaning of the award and the meaning of the day to all of us and our loved ones who were there to mark the occasion with us. There are people in this picture who have transformed their communities and saved lives and restored languages and brought dignity and opportunity to others in their communities and I'm humbled to be counted in their number.
If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you may already be tired of hearing me allude to the challenges of this project. And the absolute truth is that I know I am not the first (nor will I be the last) award recipient to walk in through the doors of Rideau Hall not knowing how to pay next month's rent and walk out feeling tremendously honoured but just as broke. But I feel it's important to bring it up again today because it relates very much to my feelings about this award.
I began this journey with tremendous energy and optimism but it was clear from the beginning that it would be a marathon rather than a sprint, which was fine. Given the uniqueness of the project, funding was a serious challenge but with the help of some great people we were finding solutions to end-run some of the bureaucracy. At the end of 2005 - just months from the pledged debut of the project - Stephen Harper's government was elected and the tone of everything began to change very quickly. The first Conservative Heritage Minister, Bev Oda
cancelled critical funding that I had been assured was on the way, CBC Television changed its mind about wanting to complete the project for which we had gone through a development process and I felt that a huge boulder had been added to my burden. And although many amazing people came through to help make the debut happen - from David Neale
and Laurie Brown
to Mike Lazaridis
and my angel in Victoria and Charlie Coffey
and Mark Kristmanson
and everyone at the National Capital Commission
's Canada Day team - the weight (in the form of both debt and a kind of official hostility to the portrait of Canada I was trying to paint) was one that I had to continue to carry as the project moved out into the world. And I wouldn't say for a moment that there haven't been many triumphs between then and now - from appreciative audiences, powerful feedback from people touched by the vision of the project, a coin from the Royal Canadian Mint
, a beautiful book from Douglas & McIntyre
, a series of packed shows with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra
, a tête à tête with Chris Hadfield
, an invitation to Italy and all kinds of other adventures and encounters that I wouldn't trade for the world - but I have never actually felt like the project was thriving and we're always close to bankruptcy and my biggest fear is that I and my project would just slip beneath the waves without ever having achieved all that it could, unremembered. Which is why being honoured with a medal from Her Majesty, by way of the Governor General - especially at this time - means so much. It means that, no matter what financial state the project might be in and no matter my pessimism around the CBC and the state of the arts in Canada, someone has noticed that the project is worth recognizing.
Which brings me to the real point of this essay.
I am tremendously grateful for the Meritorious Service Medal - for the honour and recognition it brings as well as for the hope it brings that there's still work to be done that is of value and that the the situation of the project might improve. But I am equally grateful for all of the people I am proud to call friends and associates who contributed their efforts and talents and support not only to me and my project but to all kinds of other people as well. They all deserve medals too and the very least I can do is name just a handful of them here.
First of all, I must recognize George Rizsanyi
. The truth is that I don't talk to George any more. Our relationship soured and I have never been able to determine the real causes of that since they seem to change every now and then and it is not healthy to dwell there. But I will never stop staying that George was a huge part of the inspiration for the project and that he did an amazing job building Voyageur
. I know there are more prestigious luthiers and I'm sure there are people it would have been easier to work with but I honestly think George Rizsanyi is the only person who could have built this guitar. He was quite fearless about it and agreed to work with a bunch of materials I'll bet almost any luthier in the world would have told me they couldn't work with. But he did. And he made from all this historical and cultural detritus a guitar that is holdable and playable and durable and beautiful and for that he has my unending respect and gratitude.
Naturally, his work would not have been possible without the extraordinary material contributions of individuals and communities in every province and territory of Canada - from Haida Gwaii to Cambridge Bay to Cape Race Newfoundland - not to mention all the people who researched and documented all of those pieces of historical stuff.
Then, there are people who provided services to the project - both paid and unpaid - that attempted to harness my crazy dream and make it a doable, manageable series of tasks that could not only deliver a finished guitar but move it around the country and let people know what it was all about - people like Holly Dennison
and Heather Kelly
and Amanda Van Den Brock
and Gabriel Dube
and Dave Neale
and Laurie Brown
and Lisa Whynot
and Eric Birnberg
and Tom Walden
and everyone at D'addario Canada
There are people whose own artistic talents and visions infuse the project in various of its iterations - people like Darren Wilson
and Sandor Fizli
and Sarah Gillett
and Doug Nicholson
and Andrea Dixon
and Curtis Wehrfritz
and Guillaume Semblat
and Bob Stamp
and Blaine Philippi
and Annemarie Roe
and Amanda McAvour
and Kate Jackson
There are the people who have worked so hard to bring the project to their communities across the country - the festival organizers and the teachers and principals and community workers and conference planners.
There are the people who work on my behalf at the National Speakers Bureau
and Mariposa in the Schools
and Westwood Creative Artists
There are those wonderful friends who have kept looking for opportunities to share the project and provided such amazing personal support like Paul McCabe
and Katrina Anderson
and Peter MacLeod
and Richard Davis
and Bill McKetrick
and Jessica Dargo Caplan
and Bill Heffernan
and Peter MacDonald
and all the great people at the Community Foundations of Canada
And, of course, there are the countless musicians - from every region and style and cultural background, famous and amateur, veteran and rookie who have embraced Voyageur
not only as an instrument worthy of playing but for all that it embodies as a symbol of who we are as a people. So many of them face that same dichotomy - there may be awards and recognition of various kinds but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're making a stable living.
And here's the crazy thing: this list of names you see above is such a cursory list. There are so many friends and family and hundreds of other people who have helped make this project what it is with their work and their support and their simple encouragement and example.
It's a strange experience. There you are in the room where we recently watched our new Prime Minister (who also contributed to the project in several significant ways) and his Ministers sworn in. And, in fact, the ceremony itself was not that different - I imagine each of the MPs went through a similar rehearsal as we did. When your name is called you move to the aisle and walk toward the Governor General. Pause, give a slight bow of the head, and move to a position between the GG and the emcee at the podium. A brief description of your work is read and your name is repeated. You move back in front of the Governor General and he affixes the medal to the little holder they've set you up with for the occasion. You shake hands, turn to face the cameras, exchange a few words, head over to the table where you sign the register and return to your assigned seat. You walk a square of maybe 80' and the whole process takes about 90 seconds. And with you you carry all of these names, all of these people who helped you take this short walk and sign your name to a history book and you want them to have a medal too.
Photo Credit: Sgt Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall
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Our last full day in Grande Prairie had been set aside for more school visits and, in particular, we'd figured on a visit to the big new high school, Charles Spencer
. For some reason that was not an option. But I was anxious to get out there and share the story and my hosts were keen to deliver so they arranged for visits to two local seniors' residences: the Pioneer Lodge
and Wild Rose Manor
- both members of the Grande Spirit Foundation
for affordable housing.
At Pioneer we set up a makeshift screen in the common room and got a good turnout from residents who came down to see what the fuss was about (we heard one resident ask if it was going to be a political speech!). After spending a week speaking in schools, it certainly is a pleasure to speak to a room full of people to whom I don't have to explain the significance of Paul Henderson
's hockey stick! Of course, the other great part is talking with the residents afterwards and hearing their stories and we had a particularly lovely time with the three in this photo, Margaret, Anne
(pictured left to right). Fourteen-year-old Garion Bell
came out and volunteered to play a few tunes and had the residents clapping along and calling for an encore!
From there it was on to the Wild Rose on the south side of town. As we entered past the giant tropical fish tank, garden and indoor fire pit there was a BINGO game going on in the main common area. There was kind of a lounge area off to one side set up with a small projection screen but I saw they had a nice big TV already rigged into the sound system so we re-arranged some furniture and got set up in that corner.
I'm constantly observing that everyone has some connection to Voyageur
- whether that's a place that it's come from, a place that it's been, a story in the guitar, a person who's played it, a song sung on it or someone who's had their portrait taken with it. And I don't think I've ever been proven wrong. As we're getting set up, Pearl
comes over with her walker to find out what's going on. She is wearing a bright pink T-shirt that declares itself a souvenir of Kuujuaq, Nunavik - home of the very first piece of material I talk about in the presentation (the caribou-antler ulu
carved for us by Charlene Watt
We had no one to play Voyageur
at Wild Rose but I was prepared with the wonderful video I have of Paul O'Brien
and the St. Michaels University School Senior Orchestra and Choir
performing "Voyageur", the song he wrote for me and the guitar, in Victoria BC. I hadn't seen it for a while and watching all the young folks performing on the screen while sitting with the old folks at the Wild Rose was just too much and had me in floods of tears. And hanging around with some of the residents afterwards and having such lovely chats had me thinking of my own grandparents and of my partner, Sarah, who is currently in Norfolk UK visiting with her own very elderly grandmother. Love to you all.
Thanks to Lindsey McNeil
, Adyne Bell
, Shari Hrehoruk
and the welcoming staff and residents at Pioneer and Wild Rose!
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The model that we've built now over a few series with different Community Foundations
in Canada is that the CF does much of the heavy lifting in terms of lining up school and community partners who'd like to have the Six String Nation presentation and then funds or assists the funding of the whole tour. This takes the load of the school district or individual schools from having to coordinate a schedule and travel and accommodations and those kinds of things - though there must always be very active partners in the school or community who help to get teachers, principals and other community groups on board and informed and involved. And we had several of those on this trip that I've mentioned in previous blogs.
So what does the local Community Foundation get out of it? Well, for one thing, not everybody is aware of the vital work Community Foundations do in terms of monitoring the overall health of the community by compiling and aggregating various kinds of research and metrics on things like health, poverty, economic diversity, social issues and more into their annual Vital Signs
reports and then encouraging, directing, managing and coordinating various kinds of individual and corporate giving with different charities and services in the region, so a Six String Nation school and community tour becomes a way for them to reach out to local school districts and community service providers to give them the opportunity to bring in something that most individual schools or senior's residences or volunteer organizations couldn't bring in on their own. And it helps build those relationships so they become aware of the other ways that CFs might be able to help in the community. For another, they typically organize these tours to coincide with their own fundraising efforts or other special events so that they're kind of getting me to their event as part of a bundle. And last night was the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta
's annual "Nourish the North" fundraising gala. It's a chance for them to wine and dine their ongoing sponsors and donors, attract potential new donors, raise some more awareness and raise additional funds through the auction and silent auction and that kind of thing. It's always struck me that the work of the Community Foundations embraces the kind of view of the interconnectedness of a community that is fundamental to the whole Six String Nation project so it feels like a very natural fit.
One of the main things the Six String Nation project was designed to do is to challenge some of the divisions that some political forces are determined to maintain between regions of Canada - stoking various resentments and animosities - and open a more inclusive conversation about who we are as Canadians from a thousand and one different perspectives. Perhaps not surprisingly, people are always offering me warnings about the kind of reception I might receive in Alberta. Now, first of all I should say that no province has invited me back more often than Alberta, no province has incorporated Six String Nation into school curriculae more than Alberta and no province has been more welcoming and hospitable than Alberta. Between the looming election and the Blue Jays advance in the playoffs and the news of the day, I've had many many political conversations with all kinds of people the week that I've been here and I can tell you that the range of opinion and the depth of feeling for our sense of community and nation is as diverse and nuanced here in the same way it is in any part of Canada. Last night I had one (good natured) heckle for my mention of the inclusion of Pierre Trudeau
's canoe paddle in Voyageur
and three people who came up afterwards during the photo opportunity asking to feel for it inside the sound hole. All of this is proof to me that, as Canadians, there is so much that we share in common and that efforts to find and aggravate divisions between us are cynical and misplaced.
I started my presentation after a delightful round of drinks and appetizers and for the "performance pocket" we welcomed three players to the stage. The youngest, James Morrison
is studying voice and performance at a local college and he opened up the musical portion of the presentation. He's predominantly a piano player but proved perfectly capable on guitar as well and I think he's going to excel at school. Next up, Clyde Blackburn
braved a shortened rendition of Gordon Lightfoot
's "Railroad Trilogy". Clyde's date for the evening was his mother, Pam
, visiting from Newmarket Ontario. They were both equally charming and delightful to meet. And finally, local musician, producer, studio owner, composer and guitar teacher Chris McIntyre
- who had also provided background music on his own guitar for the earlier part of the evening - came out from his spot off to the side and up on the stage with Voyageur
to perform an original, "Cottage By the Lake" - an ode to a family place with special meaning for him in Clear Lake, Manitoba. Chris is an extremely accomplished guitar player but I was especially struck by his voice. I have no idea if power ballads are in his repertoire as a musician or producer but it seemed to me he could hit those high notes with the best of them!.
Thanks once again to Tracey and Vince Vavrek
and all the staff and volunteer support who made this event such a glittering success. A very special thanks to Lindsey McNeil
from CFNWAB who handled book sales and to the volunteers from ATB Financial
who did all the serving and bussing!
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