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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Last Stop, @Ridley_College

Ridley College students, including players Jamie and Christine with Voyageur "Enter through the Marriott gates in order to get to the circle drive in front of the Upper School building" was one of the directions in a detailed email from Ridley College teacher Ken Hutton in advance of my last school visit during this trip to the Niagara region. Not too many schools have multiple gate options to get to the building where you want to be. Not too many schools have more than one building you might need to get to! But Ridley is straight out of the movies - looking somewhere between "Good Will Hunting" and "Hogwarts"; honestly, it's quite a magnificent campus and I was almost surprised not to see a game of Quiddich underway in the quad! Ken was there to greet me as per plan and took me up to our presentation room on the second floor of the grand old building. Through his friendly enthusiasm, I could sense that he was a bit disappointed that our visit to the school had not been embraced as a large-scale assembly but it was an unavoidable outcome given the normal timeline of scheduling events like this one at a school that is so rigorous in its scheduling of students and very disciplined about the time they spend in the classroom versus extracurriculars (not that I see Voyageur's story as extracurricular!). So this would be a lunch-time presentation for a small group of students but none the less impactful or well-received for so being.

The rowing machines stored along one wall suggested this was more of a multi-purpose room but the layout and equipment were perfectly suited for presentations or, I can imagine, theatre rehearsals or readings. We got set up quickly and launched in in record time in order to fit the lunch hour. Hutton (pictured very far left in the photo) had arranged for two students to play Voyageur in the "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation - that's them holding the guitar: Jamie Zhao (left) and Christine Ciu (right). Christine did a solo acoustic version of Charlie Puth & Selena Gomez's "We Don't Talk Anymore" and Jamie performed her own composition, "Imagine I'm Gone". I think that officially makes it a record: I heard more original songs performed by students and community members during this four days in Niagara than during any other community tour so far. I cannot tell you how gratifying that is when people - especially young people - choose to use their own voice when it comes to bringing Voyageur to life for their peers!

A special bonus of my trip to Ridley was finding Linda Chang - a couple of years my junior back in high school but close friends with the sister of my friend Isabelle Rousset so our circles definitely Venned. We had a chance to have a coffee in the magnificent cafeteria and get well caught up. Thanks to all at Ridley College and I hope I'll be back to speak to the whole school some time soon!

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I Will Go Back to @BackhouseXYZ

Chef Ryan Crawford, Backhouse My brother-in-law, Luke Gillett and his BrainFarm partner Kim Van Styguren were enlisted to help turn a traditional looking restaurant in an unassuming strip mall in Niagara-on-the-Lake into a very special new restaurant called Backhouse for proprietor Bev Hotchkiss and Chef Ryan Crawford (pictured) and I was curious to see the results. Luke booked us space last night at the bar at the chef's station - the place I always want to be in a great restaurant (and where I really wouldn't want to be at many other restaurants). The results - from ingredients to menu to furnishings to decor to cellar to the experience as a whole - are spectacular. It was one of the best meals I've had for a long time - and didn't put me too far off my aspirational beach-body program (except for perhaps the bread, wine and toasted honey marshmallows).

The effect of the decor, layout and ingenious simplicity of the pulley-operated grills that sit over the wood fire behind the chef's station is to capture, reflect and showcase their commitment to a couple of key, related culinary principles: for one thing, there's a real embrace of being situated in a colder climate - sure, the open fire helps underline that but so does the list of ingredients and their treatment by the kitchen as a kind of stage for local ingredients, flavours, methods and traditions; the other thing is the extent to which they adhere to the principles of the farm-to-table movement popular in so many cities these days - they actually have their own farm and all the restaurant staff contributes to tending and harvesting the bounty. They also have their own vineyards and an excellent house Pinot Noir. We had a tasting menu and our second item was a simple presentation (on a rock) of house-grown cherry tomatoes (the very last of the season) with a house made ricotta and Seneca salt flakes. I actually won't go into detail about all the dishes because I know that can be irritating for some - suffice to say that each step in the marathon offered something new and exciting and satisfying.

Thanks to Luke and Julie and Chef Crawford and the whole staff for an extraordinary culinary experience to add to the other peak experiences on this trip to Niagara.

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Laura Secord Wizards

Dave Sisler, Olivia Madera, Dexter Sonier - Laura Secord Secondary School I had a slight glimpse into the culture at St. Catharines' Laura Secord Secondary School yesterday at Lincoln Centennial Public School when grade 11 Secord student Dexter Sonier ported over to cover the performance segment for the junior students. He was accomplished, friendly, confident and talked up the rich music program at his own school. But whatever impression he may have left with me was nothing compared to what I encountered when I arrived at LSSS today:
I arrived by the wrong door and was making my way to the office to find my contact, music teacher Dave Sisler (pictured, left) - teaching music at the school he attended as a youth - when we bumped into each other in the hallway (along with a crew from the local cable station) right outside the door of the auditorium. It looked pretty much like a thousand other auditorium-doors-in-a-school-hallway I've seen before. But it opened into the backstage of a generous stage with carefully focussed lighting specials and a professional-looking raked house. The student crew on hand completely knew what they were doing and I was set up in no time at all. Sounds good, right? You ain't heard nothin' yet!

It was the most attentive crowd I've encountered so far this trip - really focussed and receptive - laughing and crying in all the right places. This wasn't a thing they had to attend in the middle of their day - it was a program on offer at their school that they were curious about and engaged in from the moment the show began. Dexter was set to reprise his performance from Lincoln yesterday but he was sharing the slot with Olivia Madera (pictured, centre), who performed a song she wrote herself called "Love Another". Really interesting folk-pop writing and great vocal delivery. I'm going to guess she's getting a lot of much deserved encouragement and we can look forward to hearing more from her in the future (BTW, I found it interesting that in this photo she's wearing a T-shirt for the band I hadn't heard of until DSBN Academy student Makay Bissonnette played one of their songs on Tuesday afternoon). So, awesome, right? Can it get even better? Yes it can!

Dexter (pictured, right) started his turn with the beautiful Spanish instrumental he played yesterday, "La Paloma", and, like yesterday, he completely nailed the timing to coincide with the end of the sequence of portrait slides on the screen behind him. It made us all look like real pros. But we had time for a little more music and he started picking out a familiar intro. Sure enough, he launches into The Who's "Pinball Wizard". Then, something really amazing happens: a huge portion of the audience comes in on cue with the vocal parts! Apparently, the school choir had been doing selections from Tommy. The effect was electric and definitely a highlight of my school presentation experiences here or anywhere. The CogecoTV crew sure picked the right occasion to shoot their piece - I'll be sure to link to it when it's posted on Facebook!

Thanks to all the students, staff and great tech crew at Laura Secord as well as the Cogeco folks. Thanks also to Jordy Yack from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, who joined us to deliver info about my presentation at the Centre tomorrow evening, with performances by Suzie Vinnick, Serena and Nick from The Mandevilles and contest winner Jamie Godard. We're also doing free portraits so come out if you're in the area!

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Random Act of Music

Suzie Vinnick plays at NCF Breakfast I managed to come home to the Holiday Inn from the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre last night in the lightest sprinkling of rain. Lucky for me, this morning's breakfast presentation for the Niagara Community Foundation 15th Annual Leaders Breakfast was in one of the ballrooms of the adjoining Conference Centre so while attendees arrived in what had become a downpour, I just took the elevator. My association with various local Community Foundations - through some events I did with the umbrella organization, Community Foundations of Canada - has been an extraordinarily productive one. As the CFs did in Lethbridge/Southwestern Alberta, the North Okanagan and Grande Prairie, the Niagara Community Foundation supported my visits to a series of area schools and community centres - partly as a way of enhancing their visibility in the community beyond their usual constituents. I especially love what the Community Foundations do because it's really geared to encouraging philanthropy by all kinds of mechanisms at many different levels - a kind of "giving culture" that really needs some nurturing in Canada. Their focus on building community is very much in line with the goals of the whole Six String Nation project and together they have helped me deliver the presentation to nearly 5000 students in various parts of the country.

For the NCF, this morning's breakfast was a chance for them to talk up their annual "Random Act of Kindness" initiative, which happens tomorrow and get an abridged version of the show I'll be doing tomorrow night at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. For me, it was a chance to thank them for their support AND to get a bit of a run-through with my old friend Suzie Vinnick, who will be one of the performers tomorrow at FOPAC.

Suzie is one of my favourite people that I've encountered over the years in concert production, broadcasting and touring the Canadian festival circuit. She is a six-time winner of the Maple Blues Award for Best Female Vocalist, winning in 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013, and a two-time winner of the Maple Blues Award for Best Songwriter, winning in 2006 and 2011. She's also a two-time winner in the Blues category of the International Songwriting Competition and a two-time Juno Award nominee. Today was a short presentation and so she did just the one song - one she wrote with another old pal of mine, Rick Fines - called "How'd You Know I Missed You". Tomorrow night she'll play Voyageur for her whole set - which is kind of amazing. After all, Suzie is famously associated with a parlour-sized, Vancouver-built Larrivée guitar (like the one Chris Hadfield played on the I.S.S.) called Mabel - to the extent that she even has an album called "Mabel & Me". Who knows - perhaps a new album, "Voyageur & Me", lies somewhere in the future?

Thanks to event organizer JoAnn Krick, presentation tech Mike Webb, the staff at the Holiday Inn Conference Centre and all the folks who came up to meet and greet me and Voyageur after the presentation. Thanks for making this whole week possible!

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Staying on (in) Circles

Jason Shawana performs at Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre I wrote earlier today about the distinct difference between the two main monuments at Queenston Heights: the towering, rigid monument to Major-General Isaac Brock and the more circular, human scaled Landscape of Nations nearby commemorating the Native fighters who supported him and finished the fight in his (permanent) absence.

That circle motif remained in strong evidence at today's second presentation at the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre. I was scheduled to do my presentation ahead of the evening's men's and women's drum group gatherings. I arrived and set up in the Great Hall part of the facility, where chairs were already set in a circle. It was small and intimate so no need for the headset mic provided. At first it was mostly women who arrived but gradually more of the men came in and we got started. I confess that it's a slightly daunting prospect presenting to First Nations audiences, as I've done in Alberta, BC and elsewhere. While, in many ways, I see Six String Nation as a tool for advancing conversations around Truth & Reconciliation, I'm also very conscious that the focus of the project on ideas about "being Canadian" includes some assumptions about the value of "Canadian-ness" that many First Nations, Inuit and Métis people may not share - and I think my anxiety about that language makes me not perform as well as I might. So I just hope that those audiences recognize that my intention was to include many aboriginal stories woven into the fabric of the whole project and that those stories would be as diverse and inclusive as all the other pieces included in the project from a wide variety of communities. I needn't have worried tonight - the reception was just great!

I was especially pleased that tonight's performer, Jason Shawana (pictured), played one of his own tunes - the lovely "Soul Beautiful". I always encourage people to play their own music when presented with the opportunity to perform on Voyageur but it's pretty rare in school or community settings to hear that. Jason was the first to do so during this little tour of the Niagara region.

Even better than that, though, was being invited to stay behind as the drum groups got going after the presentation. At first, I sat in the circle among the women. Led by Jason's sister, Sabrina, it was a powerful collection of voices (which had leant themselves to Justin Rutledge's "Don't Be So Mean Jelly Bean" earlier in the evening!) and multiple hand-drums and I felt lucky to have been invited. But I was also invited to look in on the men's group, which meets in a portable building at the other side of the parking lot from the main Centre. What awaited me there was a whole other experience. Not only was I invited to sit in the circle around the big drum, I was given a stick as well! We were all instructed to focus on the centre of the drum to help keep time. Man! The feeling of being in that circle, hitting that drum, absorbing all the voices that washed over me was like nothing I've experienced before. And just like my experience of the monuments earlier in the day, there was a kind of human-scaled comfort to it all. There was a mixture of ease and discipline, instruction and conversation and music - all flowing together effortlessly. I did my best to pick up on the rhythm and melody (and many of the words) in one Blackfoot song and - after participating in three songs - managed to nail my timing on a finale! Guys - it was a true pleasure, a true honour an unforgettable experience to be included in your practice. Meegwetch!

Special thanks to Jackie Labonte for coordinating my visit to the Centre and being such a kind, beautiful and gracious hostess. Thanks also to Fort Erie Secondary School teacher Cliff Sayliss, who brought some sound gear from the school and set it up for the performance; and to Jordy Yack from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, who joined us to deliver info about my presentation at the Centre this coming Friday, with performances by Suzie Vinnick, Serena Pryne and contest winner Jamie Godard. We're also doing free portraits so come out if you're in the area!

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A Path to Reconciliation

Landscape of Nations, Queenston Heights Way up on the Niagara Escarpment at Queenston Heights overlooking the Niagara River (and Lewiston, New York on the other side) is a giant monument to Major-General Isaac Brock - a British military career administrator and Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. While he had some stellar success early on during the War of 1812, five months in - at the Battle of Queenston Heights - fending off an American attack, Brock was killed in battle. And yet the British did not lose that battle. If you read the Wikipedia entry about the battle, the job was finished by General Roger Hale Sheaffe. But nowhere in that article is there even a mention of the Six Nations leaders and warriors and other Native Allies who secured the victory and helped create Canada. And neither - until recently - was there any commemoration at Queenston Heights of those First Nations fighters who remained loyal to Brock...even though the people of Six Nations contributed more per capita than anyone else in Canada to rebuilding the monument to Brock after it was destroyed in 1840!

At last, that all changed a month ago today with the unveiling of a new monument recognizing the sacrifices of First Nations people in the War of 1812 called the Landscape of Nations. It includes statues of Mohawk leader John Brant (Ahyouwa’ehs) and Cherokee-Scottish-adopted Mohawk Major John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) as well as other features recognizing the First Nations of the alliance and other themes such as the origin Turtle, the Longhouse, the Wampum Belt and an eastern white pine that stands as the symbol of the Haudenosaunee constitution known as the Great Law of Peace. Just the way the whole commemoration works - as a walk-though experience with the repetition of circles and pathways - stands in such stark contrast to the giant, lofty, phallic, inaccessible statue of Brock just a hundred metres away.

Thanks to Stéphanie Filippi, outreach coordinator at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, for pointing out the sculpted paper models of Brant and Norton by Allen & Patty Eckman in the PAC lobby and encouraging me to visit the real thing in my spare time today!

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Land of Lincoln…

Dexter Sonier ...Lincoln Centennial Public School in St. Catharines, that is - site of today's first presentation. I confess that I thought the older cohort of the school would be my audience but they were out on a field trip so it was the grade 4-6 groups. I always worry that I'm going to talk over their heads with heavy concept stuff at that age and I didn't come prepared with my special Lego-themed presentation for this school so I added in my special Quiz section and went ahead anyway...

...And it was just fine! The kids were great, the teachers and assistants enthusiastic and engaged. And I'm grateful that junior/intermediate teacher Thelma Forrester really embraced the whole concept and used it to shape her own message to her students about the role of the arts in education and the value of telling one's own story.

The extra special treat was that - as there were no primary school guitarists or guitar-playing staff - a neighbouring high school sent over grade 11 student Dexter Sonier (pictured) to play in the performance pocket of the presentation. Dexter is one of those guys who may still be in high school but is evidently on a clear path to his adult life - super comfortable and confident in front of all those kids and a great guitar player (he plays countless other instruments as well). He performed an absolutely gorgeous Spanish classical instrumental standard called "La Paloma" and a sing-a-long version of The Band's "The Weight" - which is amazing in itself as that's one of those songs I can never quite make out the lyrics to in spite of having heard it a million times by now and he had the little kids doing it! Great to start them off on what is truly one of the greats.

Special thanks to the staff and students at Lincoln Centennial and to Michael Chess from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre who joined me today to deliver info about my presentation at the Centre this coming Friday, with performances by Suzie Vinnick, Serena Pryne and contest winner Jamie Godard. We're also doing free portraits so come out if you're in the area!

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Discovery at the Academy

DSBN players From there, it was on to the DSBN (District School Board of Niagara) Academy in St. Catharines. Teacher Toby Ley was my contact and he gave me a terrific backgrounder on what makes the school so special - in fact, the first of its kind in Canada. As I followed up in a quick search afterwards, I saw that the school began under some serious criticism back in 2011 as a kind of public/charter school geared to students who would be the first in their families to attend post-secondary education and who were motivated to do just that. Some felt that the students would be stigmatized. But for all the controversy, the program really seems to be working. They were such a great group - polite but not unnaturally so, confident and curious and full of comments and questions as they gathered around Voyageur after the presentation. Sometimes when I do a school presentation, one of the students gets up and reads a prepared thank you note for me and it can be very sweet. But at DSBN, at least half a dozen students thanked me for coming personally and totally in their own words. It gives one hope.

Teacher Jason Eckhardt played BNL's "Brian Wilson"; student Andrew Bossert - a very comfortable and versatile guitarist - played an Eagles song that shall remain nameless; and student Makay Bissonnette introduced me to a great song I wasn't familiar with: "Swing Life Away" by Chicago band Rise Against. Thanks for that Makay!

Thanks to all the staff and students at DSBN Academy and a special thanks again to Stéphanie Fillippi from the outreach program at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre who joined me at both school visits today to deliver info about my presentation at the Centre this coming Friday, with performances by Suzie Vinnick, Serena Pryne and contest winner Jamie Godard. We're also doing free portraits so come out if you're in the area!

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Headed for the Border

Cliff Sayliss, FESS Following my GPS into Fort Erie ON this morning, I very nearly took a wrong turn. It's the same wrong turn music teacher Cliff Sayliss took when he first started working at Fort Erie Secondary School: in his case he figured he'd pick up a coffee on the way in and took the off-ramp where he saw the Tim Horton's sign. But that location is in the Duty-Free zone and it's a one-way lane to Buffalo on the U.S. side of the border. No passport, hot coffee... and some pleading with border guards who've seen it happen too many times to count. Fortunately, I recovered at the last minute and got my bearings quickly to F.E.S.S. but it's a clear reminder of just how close we are to the USA.

We got off to a good start this morning but about three minutes into the presentation, the Fort Erie Fire Department initiated a surprise drill. Man, it was impressive - students and teachers moved like clockwork and the whole exercise was over in 10 minutes. In all my years doing school presentations that's the first time that has happened!

We resumed and everything went just fine. Our student performer was Keaton House (awesome name) and he arrived wearing a Ramones T-shirt. Cool. Not surprisingly, for his performance he did "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash (though without vocals. I really wish students - even if they're a bit shy about it - would venture to sing. It adds so much to the performance and kind of makes sense of the chords you're hearing). After that, Cliff (pictured) did a lovely rendition of Bruce Cockburn's "All the Diamonds" (perhaps one of my favourite Cockburn tunes) and then student Kyle Krauss - who'd been doing sound - piped up that he wanted to give Voyageur a go. In fact, he was a great example of why I think students should sing their songs even if they're not confident singers. He did a very stripped down version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which he kind of talk-sang with a wry delivery that actually worked really well.

Thanks to all the staff and students at Fort Erie Secondary and a special thanks to Stéphanie Filippi from the outreach program at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre who joined me to deliver info about our public concert coming up at the Centre this coming Friday.

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