I'm lucky to have good friends in different parts of Canada and so my occasional travels revolving around Voyageur
give me an opportunity see people I wish I saw on a more regular basis. That was certainly the case this past weekend where I got to spend some quality catch-up time with old and dear friends Ted & Sue Koleff
and squeeze in a pre-departure early lunch meeting Monday with my good pal Ian Menzies
. Just as I was pulling up to the restaurant to meet Ian, I saw someone I've been wanting to see for a long time but never had the chance – the legendary actor, musician and activist Tom Jackson
Through a friend, I corresponded briefly with Tom back when I was researching for the Six String Nation project and still looking for materials. Knowing he was from Saskatchewan originally, I was hoping he might connect me to something from Batoche. Our Louis Riel
-related material ended up coming (spectacularly) from St. Boniface MB while Tom clued me in to the story of Almighty Voice
from the One Arrow First Nation in Saskatchewan. He put me in touch with some people in the community and we ended up getting a piece of stone from the monument
to the young Cree man whose tragic tale was a testament to the appalling treatment of First People by the North West Mounted Police and the injustices of the reserve system. It is now mounted as one of three inlays in the first fret of Voyageur
I'm so glad I finally got a chance to put the guitar in Tom's hands and he played beautifully right there in the parking lot. Thanks for taking the time, Tom!
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I'd heard earlier this summer about a new play about Alberta's legendary black cowboy, John Ware
, produced by Ellipsis Tree Theatre
in Calgary written by author, screenwriter, historian and playwright Cheryl Foggo
(pictured). Knowing that I"d be returning Voyageur
to John Ware's Cabin to recognize the contribution of material for the pick-guard, I thought it might be nice to try and share the guitar and the story with Cheryl while I was passing through Calgary on the way home – especially since her play featured music by friend-of-the-Six-String-Nation Kris Demeanor
and Foggo's daughter, Miranda Martini
. So I reached out by email and much to my delight she was available and suggested a meet-up.
Cheryl and I had a lot to talk about and had a wide-ranging conversation about everything from John Ware to songwriting to public broadcasting. I'm hopeful that one day we'll be able to make some kind of collaborative presentation including Kris and Miranda and the guitar that links us all together. In the meantime it was a pleasure just to meet and to hear about the academic work Cheryl is doing which is on the verge of revealing some undiscovered facts about the life of Canada's most legendary black cowboy. There are details that will impact the presentation that I give at schools and conferences across Canada and I will look forward to sharing them in this space as Cheryl publishes her research.
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The final homecoming this trip to southern Alberta made possible was a visit to John Ware
's cabin. Ware was an African-American cowboy who arrived in Alberta in the late 1800's and established himself as a respected rancher and businessman. His prowess on horseback might have been enough of a foundation for his legacy but his gentle manner, his resilience, his feats of strength, his political savvy, his business acumen and his fatherhood all contributed to the making of a legend. There are many monuments and tributes to him in this part of the province but in particular his cabin has been preserved and was moved from its original location in Brooks AB to nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park
. Ranger Fred Hammer
(pictured) had been my contact for obtaining a small piece of wood from the cabin, which is now mounted on the face of Voyageur
as an element of the pick-guard, so I was keen to make the pilgrimage.
The drive between Hand Hills and Brooks is clearly ranching and farming territory: long straight roads defining vast stretches of farming and grazing land dotted with cattle and horses. It was not hard to imagine Ware working this land. But then something very very weird happens as you approach the Park. There is evidence of some.... topography...on the horizon. You enter the park, climb a very short rise and round a bend in the road and all of a sudden a massive bowl is revealed and you feel like you have been transported to another planet. A UNESCO World Heritage site and the source of an astonishingly diverse collection of dinosaur fossils that have found their way to museums around the world, it appears you are looking at a vast, empty Cretaceous-era inland sea and it's not hard to imagine the prehistoric life that would have inhabited its waters and gathered at its shores. It is perhaps an unlikely location for an early 20th Century cabin but had it not been moved there it might not have been preserved at all. With the resources of the Provincial Park and the restoration expertise of Parks Canada, the cabin is accessible to a large number of visitors as evidence of an important figure in Black History in Canada and a giant in the society of Alberta as it moved into Province-hood in 1905.
Thanks to Fred Hammer and the rest of the staff at the Park – and to the nice Dutch tourists who came over to discover Voyageur
and take back a few photos of a part of Canadian history they did not expect to find at Dinosaur Provincial Park.
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Part of my unofficial goal for the Six String Nation project is to eventually visit Voyageur
to all the places from whence it has come. This trip to southern Alberta has been a prodigal hat trick - first with our visit to the Kainai First Nation - source of the ammolite buffalo skull mounted inside the guitar. I set of early this morning in hopes of visiting two more material sources before I had to be at a meeting in Calgary.
My first stop was Hand Hills Lake - 38km east of Drumheller – site of Alberta's longest running pro rodeo founded by J.J. Miller
in 1917, the Hand Hills Lake Stampede
. Rancher and fourth generation Stampede committee member Blake Morton provided us with a piece of floorboard from the old Community Hall
that sits between the lake and the rodeo grounds at the bottom of Township Rd 29-4. Blake and I had a great phone conversation a couple of days ago but he was to be away from the ranch on cattleman's business today so we didn't get a chance to meet. However, I made my way over a lot of country roads and down to the rodeo grounds, where I found the community hall (pictured) in a pretty sorry state of repair. I didn't see the new community hall but wherever it is, I imagine it would be a much more comfortable place to be on a hot day. Nonetheless, I'm so glad I got to drive those roads and see this place - even when it's not at its most alive.
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Most of the fields around Lethbridge have a kind of shorn, russet-y look. People are working overtime to get the potatoes harvested, leaves are turning and this morning there was frost on the windows of the rental car. To borrow a phrase:
Winter Is Coming
Probably appropriate, then – after such a bountiful series of presentations at 14 schools in the region plus the concert in Vulcan plus last night's Friends of the Foundation dinner – that today was the final stop on this magnificent tour put together by my friends at the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
- the Junior High down in Raymond, a little closer still to the U.S. border.
Principal Cory Bevans
and librarian Sally Roberts
helped me get set up in the crows nest tech booth cantilevered over the bleachers in the gym. Everyone seemed a bit doubtful that they knew what they were doing but it all worked perfectly. The presentation went really well with performances on Voyageur
by student Paisley Perrett
and teacher Ryan Heseltine
(a saxophonist by training so I especially appreciated his foray on the six string). Many students came up afterwards to touch various parts of Voyageur
and a sizeable bunch seemed to just stick around so we put together the informal "class" picture above.
Heading back in to Lethbridge I stopped in at Lucky Star Guitars
to say my goodbyes to owner Mike Christou
, who also came to last night's Foundation dinner. While I was there, Allan Wilson
- guitarist in the band of last night's emcee, Dory Rossiter
(CTV regional weather anchor): Dory & the Weathermen
– dropped in and played Voyageur
for a while, followed by Pincher Creek guitarist Jay Collins
. Mike also showed me his first stringed instrument - a gorgeous little mandolin made for him in Alert Bay. I felt I could have stayed all afternoon.
From there, a swing by the Foundation office for farewells and a final toast of Prosecco with the extraordinary staff who did such a great job pulling this tour together and giving me the privilege of meeting so many people in so many communities in this beautiful part of Canada.
A heartfelt thanks to George Hall, Erin Vogt, Joey Going
and Deb Stoltenberg
Now it's early to bed for an early morning setting off, frost scraper at the ready.
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Last night's "Friends of the Foundation" dinner was the lynchpin of all the school visits we've been doing here in southwestern Alberta these past two weeks. Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
executive director George Hall
had seen my presentation at the Community Foundations of Canada conference in Winnipeg last year and called to see how we might be able to bring the presentation to this annual dinner in Lethbridge. Our conversation lead to this remarkable tour of this beautiful part of Canada and (by the end of today) presentations to over three thousand students in the region. So last night was not only an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the tour but to share the presentation with all the staff, executive, alumni and supporters of the CFLSA. I've been perhaps relying on readers to click the links to learn more about the work of Community Foundations here and across the country but, in a nutshell, the CFs channel funds from donors - whether they are one time donations from living individuals or legacy bequests, whether they are anonymous or open or targeted by the donor - towards project in the community. I can say that I have seen first hand in so many communities on this tour some of the extraordinary ways the Foundation puts these funds to work – from school band instruments and theatre equipment to a storage shed for the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball, from the revitalization of a community hall to the conversion of an abandoned church building into a vital local community centre. They are projects large and small but each of them contributes to the vitality of communities and I've been proud that the CFLSA has seen the message of the Six String Nation project as a valuable contribution to communities in this region.
University of Lethbridge music prof Dale Ketchison
provided pre-show guitar music during last night's dinner but we stealthily slipped in a few pieces performed on Voyageur
- partly so he could get a chance to play it (and as a nylon string player, that's quite something - hope your fingers are OK today, Dale!) and partly so we could slip the tone and feel of Voyageur
into the proceedings without spoiling the surprise of the presentation. The presentation itself went extremely well. If not for the carpet on the floor of the Lethbridge Lodge ballroom you could have heard a pin drop. And it was great to hear the laughter coming back at some of the more mature references thrown into the presentation. The "performance pocket" was filled by G.S. Lakie Middle School student Lauren Follet
(pictured) who'd had a chance to play her song on Voyageur
earlier in the day at her school presentation.
Very special thanks to CFLSA board president Dianne King
for her thoughtful opening remarks and to George Hall, Erin Vogt, Joey Going
and the rest of the CFLSA staff and volunteers who did such an extraordinary job organizing not only last night's event and my whole southwestern Alberta tour, but did it in the midst of releasing "Vital Signs", the organization's most high profile annual report.
Thanks also to Brent
for handling sound, Chris
for shooting video, Kurt
for taking photos, the University of Lethbridge Bookstore
for handling book sales and Berthe
for scoring me a glass of wine at the end of it all, even though the bar had closed!
And, of course, thanks to all of the folks who came up to talk and share stories, meet Voyageur
, have photos taken and get books signed. It was a pleasure to meet you all. Thanks for all your good work in this great community. Now, it's off to my last school presentation event in Raymond AB...
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In preparing for these ten days of events in the Lethbridge area, I asked Erin Vogt
of the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
about likely weather. She said: "It's southwestern Alberta - you might get four seasons in one day!". Of course, I checked my weather app as well and it suggested good weather for the long range forecast so I ignored her advice in favour of packing lighter. And honestly, except for one day and a couple of hours of rain, the weather has been phenomenally good. This morning I awoke to snow on the ground! Fortunately, not enough that I had to clear any off the rental car and not enough that I couldn't make the walk from the parking lot into G.S. Lakie Middle School
in Lethbridge in my Six String Nation T-shirt.
What an amazing facility is this school - with different wings radiating off the central rotunda where they have a stage and a fully theatre-equipped crows nest, lighting rig, follow-spots, etc. Guitar teacher Sheldon Arvay
helped get us all set up and ready to go with plenty of time to spare. And so with that time before students began to arrive, GlobalTV Lethbridge reporter Blake Lough
(pictured) set me up for an interview. Now, I do believe it's true that everyone who encounters Voyageur
will have some connection to it - whether it's a piece of material its made from, a place that its from, a place its been, a person who's played it, a song that's been sung on it, whatever – but Blake had an extra special connection: he was one of the student players when I gave the presentation at Arnprior District High School
in Ontario on April 4th, 2011! So it was a nice little reunion as well as a fine interview.
It was an incredibly attentive audience today, though some teachers expressed some frustration that we didn't present to the whole school since there were so many relevant curriculum links that kept popping up. That's OK. I wouldn't have traded the great experience today and we'll try to make sure we get an opportunity to come back and do this again another time!
The "performance pocket" in the presentation was beautifully filled by student Lauren Follet
, who will also be the performer for this evening's presentation at the CFLSA "Friends of the Foundation" dinner so I'll be sure to post some photos of her playing there.
Thanks to all the very enthusiastic staff and students who came up to talk and meet Voyageur
after the presentation and a special thanks to student Noel Richardson
for tech operations during the show and kind words after.
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The Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
's Erin Vogt
had suggested a post-Vauxhall visit to the Hays Family Diner
a short drive away and Vauxhall principal Todd Ojala
added his endorsement as co-owner Christa Houston
is one of his former teachers. So we set off after tear-down at the school but didn't get more than 100 metres because practice was going on at adjacent Jets Stadium
...You see, Vauxhall has a very special program called the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball
. Promising players from across Canada and beyond live in an attached residence and attend classes at the high school while playing for the Jets at the recently renovated 500 seat stadium and receiving top level training. As we rolled up the batting cage was rattling with activity and a coach with a radar gun was clocking wicked-fast pitching on the practice mound. I asked if it would be OK if I just showed the guys Voyageur
, especially since the recent addition to the strap of our piece of the Asahi Vancouver jersey and our big day with the Blue Jays
. The young players you see in the picture above are from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Bermuda! I'm so glad I could share our connection for a few moments. Good luck Jets, hope to see you in the major leagues one day!
Oh, and we did eventually make it to the Hays Family Diner. We were greeted by Christa and her twins, Carson and Cailey, and I can personally vouch for the excellent cheeseburger with pretty-much-perfect fries!
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It had looked like I'd spend this morning at W.R. Myer School
in Taber, Alberta but conflicts with a few planned school drills and other school events and functions emerged and Myer felt like they couldn't do the presentation justice. Next time!
Taber is home to a huge McCain potato plant and a massive sugar beet refinery. It's also about half way to this afternoon's appointment with the Junior/Senior High School in Vauxhall. On the road to Vauxhall I noticed the farms dotted with pumpjacks - those things that you see on the prairies in oil country sometimes that appear to be giant birds pecking at the ground. My guide for so many of these school visits in the region, George Hall
from the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
, told me they are referred to colloquially around here as "riderless horses". Very evocative!
Vauxhall principal Todd Ojala
(pictured, left) had invited students from nearby Lomond Community School and the Taber Mennonite School to join his students for the assembly so we had a pretty full house in the gym for the presentation. It was easily one of the most attentive groups this tour.
The "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation was filled by Cameron Sande
(pictured, centre) – who played Voyageur
to accompany singer Hanna Logan
(not pictured). They were followed by TMS principal Dan Vanden Dungen
(pictured, right) and Vauxhall after-school rock band teacher Harley Packer
, who also organized the sound system for the day.
Thanks to all the staff and students at Vauxhall, Lomond and TMS who made it such a great afternoon today!
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One of my goals for the Six String Nation project is to visit all of the places from whence the pieces that make up Voyageur
have come (and so far have made a pretty sizeable dent in that list of places!). So I practically pleaded with the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta
to see if they could set something up on the Kainai First Nation while I was so tantalizingly close by. You see, mounted on the inside back of Voyageur
(right next to Nancy Greene
's ski from the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics) is the symbol of the Blood Tribe, the buffalo skull, carved in beautiful green ammolite
(Alberta's official gemstone found primarily on the eastern slopes of the rockies formed from the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures - ancestors of squid and octopus - called ammonites
) that was a gift to the project from the Kainai Nation.
Our timing for a trip to Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School
couldn't have been better. Principal Ramona Big Head
was anxious to inaugurate the school's brand new proscenium stage facility in the gym and resident IT and tech-geek Garrett Tailfeathers
was anxious not only to test out some of the new lighting and stage gear but also to "get the band back together" with some of his road warrior pals who've been playing rock and blues together for a few decades now.
In the "performance pocket", bluesman (and professional hypnotist!) Kiitokii
was the first to give Voyageur
a spin, followed by bass player (and evident Motorhead fan) Myron Fox
. The band's other guitarist, Lance Tailfeathers
(also current member of the Blood Tribe Council), plays left-handed but nonetheless strummed a few upside-down chords and posed for pictures. Speaking of Tailfeathers...my initial contact to obtain the ammolite was Rick Tailfeathers
and I was really hoping to meet him on this trip. Alas, he was tied up in a meeting but his cousins promised to pass on my greetings.
Following the presentation, Ramona presented me with a braid of local sweetgrass. I was presented with a similar braid of sweetgrass by friends on the Lennox Island First Nation in PEI back in 2006. It forms a kind of halo around the headstock of the guitar when it's in the case and still smells wonderful. My plan is to bind the two braids together into a ring and keep them in that spot in the Calton.
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