Ever since Europeans of various backgrounds began to arrive in North America, the First Peoples have been exposed to European musical traditions. As a consequence, many became and continue to contribute as musicians in various genres.
For example, the Ursuline nuns in Quebec City praised in 1640 the competence of certain girls such as twelve-year-old Agnes Chabdikowechich for her playing on the stringed instrument known as a viol. During the French colonial rule, the choirs at various locations were highly praised for their singing of the Roman Catholic rituals, often using two- and three-part harmony.
Under British rule and particularly after the formation of Canada in 1867, Indigenous persons were more than ever forced into residential schools, operated by various churches, where the children were cut off from using their original language or participating in their own practices including traditional musical expressions. In many cases, though, the schools had various musical instruments so that many children became skilled musicians. Often brass bands would be formed and these became so popular that as adults these musicians would form a similar band when a return to their own community occurred.
In British Columbia, the first brass band formed at the Roman Catholic mission of St. Mary’s in 1864. Soon after, another began at Metlakatla, a so-called model settlement set up by Anglican missionary William Duncan. In British Columbia between 1864 and 1914, at least 35 Indigenous mainly brass bands existed, usually consisting of 15 to 20 male players. Many of these musicians went on to play professionally in ensembles such as jazz groups and orchestras.
Some even became well-known directors such as Job Nelson who probably got his musical foundation in New Metlakatla. By the early 1900s that settlement had a reed band, a string band, an orchestra, a ladies’ orchestra, and a girls’ zobo brass band. Nelson became director of the Nisga’a brass band in Aiyansh, western British Columbia. This group performed his Imperial Native March at the competition held during the Dominion Exhibition in 1905.
Meanwhile, Indigenous musicians were becoming known in other venues. For example, Louie Deer (ca. 1888-ca. 1955), a Mohawk leader known as Os-Ke-Non-Ton from Kahnawá:ke recorded traditional songs. His rich, baritone voice was heard in many productions both in Europe and North America. He was most famous for his performances in Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha at Royal Albert Hall, London, England.
As the folk music revival swept over North America in the 1950s, Indigenous musicians began to see the possibility of becoming songwriters/performers using their own experiences and eventually even their own languages. Dan George (1899-1981), chief of the Tseil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia from 1951 to 1963, realized that song could be used to bring issues of his people to a wider audience. In his oratory he often resorted to traditional song as a means to underline the strong cultural heritage of the First Peoples.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree originally from Saskatchewan) began her career singing traditional English folksongs. In 1964 she wrote the antiwar song, “Universal Soldier” that became the anthem of the Peace Movement.
Another song of the same year, “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone”, became widely known internationally and spoke directly to the situation of her people.
Her successes encouraged many others in the 1960s and 1970s including Willie Dunn, Willy Mitchell (Algonquin/Mohawk) and his rock band, Northern Lights, Ernest Monias (Cree), Curtis Jonnie (aka Shingoose, Ojibwa), Eric Landry (Innu/Mi’kmaq), Morley Loon (Cree), Peter Frank (Mi’kmaq), and from Moose Factory, Brian Davey, and Lloyd Cheechoo.
Innu Philippe McKenzie in the early 1970s showed how folk, country, pop and rock music could be integrated with Indigenous languages and musical traditions.
Through the establishment of festivals, musicians got to know one another and received encouragement to concentrate on their own experiences and language in their songs. In the years surrounding 1970, Alanis Obosawin (Abenaki) organized an Aboriginal Stage at the Mariposa Festival. Alexis Utatnaq began creating country-like songs in Inuktitut in the early 1970s. Sugluk and Sikumiut were two Inuit rock bands formed in the early 1970s while Inuvialuit musician, Willie Thrasher formed The Cordells. By 1972 the Toonik Tyme Festival held in Iqaluit, Nunavut, had begun. Founded by Florent Vollant, a half of the internationally famous folk music duo, Kashtin, the Innu Nikamu Music Festival began in 1984.
That Festival continues to bring together numerous Indigenous musicians in all musical genres. Only a small sampling of names can be given here. Buffy Sainte-Marie succeeded in having Canada’s Juno Awards create a specific category for Aboriginal music in 1993. The first winner was Lawrence Martin (Mushkegowuk Cree) and his successors include Susan Aglukark (Inuit), Misha Donovan (Chippewa/Cree), Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Chester Knight (Cree) and the Wind, Eagle & Hawk with founder Vince Fontaine (Ojibwa), Derek Miller (Mohawk), Taima Project with Élisapie Isaac (Inuit), Digging Roots, a Blues band with ShoShona Kish (Anishinnabek) and Raven Kanatakta (Algonquin/Mohawk), Murray Porter (Mohawk), Crystal Shawanda (Wiikwemkoong First Nation), George Leach (Lillooet), Tanya Tagaq (Inuit), and Quantum Tangle (Inuit). The innovative group, A Tribe Called Red (originally with Mohawk, Cayuga, and Algonquin members) combines in what has been called “powwow-step” a blending of instrumental hiphop, reggae, and dubstep dance music. They have won two Junos up to 2018 but in categories other than “Aboriginal” to which they avoid submission. The rapper, Christie Lee Charles (Musqueam), rose to prominence with her song “Experience” in which she rapped in her traditional dialect. In 2018 she was appointed Poet Laureate of Vancouver. Other performers presently obtaining increasing attention include the hip-hop duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids (Darren Metz and Quinton Nyce [Haisla], Aasiva [Colleen Nakashuk, Inuit] as a ukulele performer and song-writer, the Yukon band formed by Diyet (Southern Tutchone) and called Diyet and the Love Soldiers, the Mohawk song-writer, Shawnee., as well as the Anishinnabe guitarist/singer, William Bruce.
Other award organizations in Canada have a specific Indigenous category including the East Coast Music Awards and the Western Canadian Music Awards. In 1993, Indspire (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation of Canada) commenced its annual honouring of outstanding Indigenous achievers including musicians. It has honoured the musicians, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Joe (Mi’kmaq), Tom Jackson (Cree), Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), Susan Aglukark, Tomson Highway (Cree), and Robbie Robertson. The Félix Awards have no specific Indigenous category, but Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant as the duo, Kashtin, have won several.
Since 2006 the Polaris Music Prize annually honours artists who produce Canadian music albums of distinction. A Tribe Called Red has been short-listed several years. In 2014, Tanya Tagaq won the prize for her album, Animism. The following year, Buffy Sainte-Marie took the top prize with her album, Power in the Blood. Over a five-year period, Jeremy Dutcher (Wolastoqiyik [Malecite]) inspired after hearing and transcribing the wax cylinder recordings made by William H. Mechling of his ancestors, created his own infused classical, jazz, and electronic music based on those melodies. Dutcher, a classically trained operatic tenor and composer released the results on his album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, sung entirely in the Wolastoq language. That album won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize.
Dutcher is one of many exploring links between his own musical culture and so-called classical music. The Cree cellist and composer, Cris Derksen, combines traditional powwow beats with classical music to create what she calls Orchestral Powwow. Métis composer, Ian Cusson, explores the intersection of western and Indigenous cultures in his orchestral and choral compositions. As more and more Indigenous persons become recognized for their skills as performers such as the opera singer, Marion Newman (Kwagiulth/Stó:clo), such musical productions will increase. In the 50th film produced by Alanis Obomsawin, Our People Will Be Healed (1917), she focuses on the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre at the Norway House Cree nation in northern Manitoba. At that school emphasis is placed on the Cree language, and musical expressions along with regular school subjects. In fact, one scene shows 500 fiddlers performing together at a gathering!
In 1996 Andrew Balfour (Cree), one of the adopted First Nations’ children caught up in the “Sixties Scoop”, founded the innovative vocal group, Camerata, in Winnipeg. Through exploring a wide range of choral works including Indigenous materials, he has developed into a fine performer and a composer of over 30 choral, instrumental, and orchestral works. His Take the Indian: A Vocal Collection on Missing Children (2015) deals with the impact of Residential Schools. The violist, Melody McKiver (Anishinaabe) recently released the highly praised CD Reckoning inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation process. Many upcoming Indigenous musicians can be followed on the website, digitaldrum.com.
The following Showcase profiles give a more in-depth exploration of a few of these amazing musicians active in Canada.