John Kim Bell, born in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, is an internationally recognized cultural figure and philanthropist who started his career conducting Broadway musicals at the age of 18 in New York for such luminaries as Gene Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Sonny Bono, and Vincent Price. He had begun piano lessons at the age of eight and later studied violin and saxophone. He earned a Bachelor’s degree, 1975, in Music at Ohio State University. As a pianist and conductor he toured with Redd Foxx, the Bee Gees, and the Russian ballet duo, The Panovs.
After conducting Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line, Cats, Zorba the Greek, 42nd Street, and On Your Toes, Bell was appointed Apprentice Conductor of the Toronto Symphony by Sir Andrew Davis in 1980, making him the first person of Aboriginal heritage to ever conduct a symphony orchestra. Bell went on to study in Italy with Franco Ferrara and then with Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic where he became the apprentice conductor to the legendary Leonard Bernstein. He appeared as a guest conductor with many orchestras across Canada, the United States, and the Royal Philharmonic in the United Kingdom. In 1982 the CBC aired “John Kim Bell”, the first of four documentaries to be made on his amazing career as a musician and philanthropist.
Concerned about the state of Indigenous Canadians, Bell established the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (now called Indspire) in 1984. Serving as its President for twenty years, he built the Foundation into the largest charity serving Aboriginal people.
John Kim Bell is attributed with developing the most corporate support for an Aboriginal cause in Canada with over $16 million in educational scholarships to Indigenous youth and establishing trust funds totaling $17 million. During the twenty years of Bell’s leadership, revenues and scholarships increased every year and the Foundation always enjoyed an operational surplus.
During this period, he continued to remain active as an artist by producing and conducting concerts for the Foundation while composing the scores to the PBS production of The Trial of Standing Bear and CTV’s Divided Loyalties. He conducted the Gala Toronto Symphony Concert in 1987 that featured Bernadette Peters and in her first major engagement, Shania Twain. In 1988, Bell produced, co-composed, directed, and conducted the first ever full-scale Aboriginal dance production, In The Land Of Spirits which premiered at the National Arts Centre. The production’s success led to a national tour in 1992 that achieved favourable reviews and a significant profit for the Foundation. Two years earlier upon completion of the new theatre which he had managed at the Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville, ON, he created a Broadway Musical Revue featuring Shania Twain.
In 1993, he established the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, a national awards system celebrating career achievement in the Indigenous community and the largest Aboriginal cultural project in Canada. Each year, the Awards culminate in a CBC special network telecast. As the Executive Producer, Bell produced eleven productions and became noted for his spectacular set designs. John Kim Bell won a Gemini Award and two international awards from the International Broadcast Designers Association for his stunning sets. In 1996, he received the Bronze Prize for his cavern set in Winnipeg and the Gold Prize for his glass pyramid set in Calgary. [That Foundation is now known as Indspire and continues the practice established by Bell to present annually, The Indspire Awards, before 2012, known as the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.] Also in 1996, he established the Blueprint for the Future, a series of Indigenous youth career fairs held across Canada that involved presentations by 100 corporations on various careers.
His numerous awards and recognitions include being named one of twelve outstanding young entrepreneurs by Canadian Business Magazine in 1989. Bell has six honorary doctorates from Lakehead University, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, Trent University, Mount Allison University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and an honorary alumnus award from the University of British Columbia. He received the prestigious Royal Bank Award in 1998 for Canadian achievement and is an Officer (1998) of the Order of Canada as well as a recipient of the Order of Ontario (2006). The Royal Conservatory of Music bestowed on him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 as did the Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards two years later.
He has and continues to serve as a director for many organizations. Currently he is patron and Arts Jury Chair of Indigenous Arts & Stories, formerly the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, a writing and visual arts competition for Indigenous youth.
In 2005 he established Bell & Bernard Limited that offers services for resource development and First Nations alike to develop relationships to negotiate commercial benefits and mitigate issues between corporations and First Nations. The company oversaw all aspects of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park at Siksika, Alberta, and Bell opened that museum/tourist destination in 2007. Currently he is Senior Advisor, Aboriginal Affairs to Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, owner and operator of Canada’s largest wind farm. Among his clients are the Siksika, Munsee-Delaware, and Michipicoten First Nations. He is founder of Eeyou Power Management Limited, a Cree-owned energy company in James Bay, Quebec.
Since 2007 he has been Executive Producer of Firebird Productions Inc. With the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, he produced “Lost Treasures of the Northwest Coast” (2008), “The Planet IndigenUS Festival Orchestra” (2008), and the biographical documentary “Ahead of Their Time” (2010).
2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
2010 Lifetime Achievement Award, Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards
2008 Honorary Doctorate of Laws – Wilfred Laurier University
2006 Lifetime Achievement Award – The Royal Conservatory of Music
2004 Order of Ontario
2003 The Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal
2002 Keith Kelly Award for Cultural Leadership Canadian Conference of the Arts
1999 Fellow Arctic Institute of North America
1999 Laureate of Excellence Award, Health Sciences Centre Foundation, Winnipeg, Manitoba
1999 Honorary Doctorate of Laws, University of Alberta
1999 Honorary Doctorate of Laws, University of Toronto
1998 Royal Bank Award for Canadian Achievement
1998 Good Servant Medal, Canadian Council of Christians and Jews
1998 Gemini Award, Best Design for 1997 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards
1997 Officer of the Order of Canada, Promoted from Member to Officer
1994 Almuni Association Honorary Alumni Award, University of British Columbia
1994 Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Mount Allison University College
1994 Award of Merit, City of Toronto
1992 The Commemorative Medal For The 125th Anniversary of Confederation
1992 Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Trent University
1991 Member of The Order of Canada, Dominion of Canada
1990 Honorary Doctorate of Music, Lakehead University
1989 Business Successor, Canadian Business Magazine
1988 William Oxley Thompson Alumni Award For Outstanding Career Achievement, Ohio State University
2014-Present Canadians for a New Partnership
2009-2013 Kawgis Power
2009-Present Chiiwedjin Shu Energy
2009-2013 Waas Power 2
2009-2012 Ontario Chamber of Commerce
2009-2012 Canadian Council on Social Development
2008-2009 Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 Jury
2005-2009 Donna Cona Incorporated
2000-2003 Canadian Institute for Health Research, Advisor
1999-2004 Aboriginal Human Resources Development Council of Canada
1999-2002 Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation
1998-2001 Toronto 2008 Olympic Bid
1998-2005 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
1997-1998 United Way of Greater Toronto
1995-1998 Canadian Tourism Commission, Ottawa, Ontario
1994-1995 Friends Of Canadian Broadcasting, Toronto, Ontario
1993-1994 National Sectorial Council For Culture, Canadian Conference of the Arts, Ottawa
1990-91 Task Force On Professional Training In The Cultural Sector, Department of Communications
1990-91 Arts and Cultural Industries Sectorial Advisory Group On International Trade (SAGIT) Department of External Affairs for International Trade
1990 Advisory Board On Marketing and Programming, National Capital Commission
1987-93 National Aboriginal Alcohol And Drug Abuse Role Model Program, Department of Health and Welfare
1992-1994 Institute For Research On Public Policy, Montreal, Quebec
1992-1994 Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre, Toronto, Ontario
Press – Critical Acclaim
“I was very impressed with him [John Kim Bell]. He noted subtleties in the score and knew how to bring them out. …He has a lot of gifts …the chief of which is this outgoing personality – so crucial for communicating as a conductor.” – Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Northern Delights, The Hannaford Street Silver Band. Opening Day R9308 (1996): From In the Land of Spirits: Creation Scene; Ceremonial Dance; Dance of the Animals; Wedding Scene; In the Land of Spirits.
Strong and Free, True North Brass. Opening Day R9320 (2000); From In the Land of Spirits: Wedding Scene; Ceremonial Dance; In the Land of Spirits.
Film: John Kim Bell, Lynx Images AR23-58 (1983)
Videos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPIjweE1jY7OaqNlLaJC8n0NYLeFflpv4
In His Own Words
My grandfather John Joseph Bell wore the Mohawk haircut as a famous wrestler and thus created a fad for that hair style in the 1950s. My father, a noted boxer, worked hard to try to improve the living conditions of his people at Kahnawake. After he was murdered at the age of 40, my only solace was music.
I think of all music visually. For example, in “Sinbad” of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade I see a big ship. … This is what I visualize when I am conducting and to try to bring across [the music’s] character.
Being an Indian has nothing to do with my musical personality and development. What it does bring out is what everyone has, a unique personality and stamp.
When I got done with the tour [of The Land of the Spirits], I said to myself I can’t put on a classical ballet every year. It’s too hard to raise this kind of money, bring dancers in, and hold them together for six weeks from all over North America. Then I came up with the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I thought, we don’t really talk on a national scale; we don’t have a national data bank; or a national moccasin telegraph that’s serious; and mainstream Canadians think very poorly of us. They don’t know that we are capable and talented people – in sports, arts, business, health, and medicine.
I got lots of opposition from Indian Affairs. When I did go to the CBC they initially said no. Late one night I was watching the CRTC hearing. CBC was getting hammered for not ever producing Aboriginal programming, so the CRTC commissioner said: You’re on probation. You either spend so many dollars or hours on Aboriginal programming- If you don’t do that- we’re not going to renew your license. I went in two to three days later and said – I want to produce the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. They said – we don’t have any money. So I told them – I’ll raise all of the money. You give me the airwaves, editing services, animation, and an office. Then we had a deal. In the first couple of years we had an audience reach of two million viewers. The CBC was absolutely shocked. A year later I was on the board of directors for eleven years. Culturally I think that advanced us; unified us; it brought new awareness to mainstream Canada. I think it brought awareness and unity in our own collective community.
One of the things I learned was that if you have a dream, it is possible to achieve it. Everything I wanted to do, nobody believed in me. I wasn’t just a dreamer; I worked seven days a week and was very realistic about what I wanted to do. When I decided I wanted to start producing concerts, I called up a well-known producer and said tell me everything that I have to do to be a good producer. I just started talking to everybody who was an expert. I didn’t have the money to hire others to do it for me and I didn’t want them to do it for me. I wanted to learn myself. I learned through hard work and street smarts how to put on these big events.
So the message is if you have a dream, it is possible, even though you’re the only one who believes in it. You just have to suffer for it. You have to have talent. You have to have brains. Most people will not work that hard to achieve their dream. They want it, but it’s not worth the work. That’s what it’s all about, hard work, taking a risk and not being afraid.
Contact Information & Links
Last accessed 18/02/ 2019
Commanda, Erica. “Arts Trailblazer John Kim Bell on Philanthropic Legacies and Corporate Responsibility,’ Muskrat Magazine 11 May, 2016.
http://muskratmagazine.com/john-kim-bell-on-the-arts-philanthropy-and-corporate-responsibility/ Last accessed 19/01/2019