After meeting young addicts, harmonica virtuoso dedicates his life to Indigenous youth

Mike Stevens had a chance encounter with a group of gas-sniffing young people and it completely transformed his life. He founded ArtsCan Circle, an organization that connects Indigenous youth to music.
Mike Stevens's life changed when he met the youth of Sheshatshui in Labrador. Now he raises funds for ArtsCan Circle, an organization founded to help Indigenous youth and to connect them with the arts community. (Robert M. Saxe/ArtsCan Circle)
On Sunday, Canadian harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens is set to perform a fundraising concert for ArtsCan Circle, the organization he founded 17 years ago.

In November of 2000, Mike Stevens was on top of his game. His time was spent recording, touring and performing in renowned concert venues like the Grand Ole Opry.

"I was playing the Opry, I was flying to Japan for a day and back again and doing really well," Stevens tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Stevens spent his early career playing harmonica part-time and driving down to Nashville every weekend for shows. (Hailey McHarg/MikeStevensMusic)

As he toured, he made a habit of reading the local news in the community where he was set to perform. While on a stopover in Goose Bay, Labrador, there was one story that led him to Sheshatshiu, a Innu community not far from Goose Bay. That trip would forever change his life.
I thought, I want to figure it out and just connect in some way.- Mike Stevens

Sheshatshiu was struggling with gas-sniffing and addiction within the community at the time.

An unidentified Sheshatshiu Innu youth openly sniffs gas in the community in 2000. (Ted Ostrowski/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stevens approached a group of young people openly sniffing gas by the side of the road. 

"To be honest, at first, I was afraid. I was scared because they were by a fire," says Stevens. "They had bags of gasoline to their faces and they were sniffing gas."

But then the unexpected happened. 

"They started to ask me about my family and where I was from," says Stevens. "We had a conversation that you couldn't have with kids that age anywhere in any part of Canada."

Stevens estimates that the youth ranged in age from nine to 17 years.

"I thought, I want to figure it out and just connect in some way, so I got out and started to play music for them," explains Stevens.

As Stevens pulled out his harmonica and began to play, he realized the youth were drawn to it. And soon they began to smile.

Unidentified Sheshatshiu Innu youth openly sniff gas in the community, 2000. (Ted Ostrowski/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Non-Indigenous himself, Stevens wondered if he would even be of any use.  

"Like, what business do I have even trying to engage those kids," reflects Stevens.

Nonetheless, Stevens wouldn't give up on the idea of somehow helping the community through music. He created the charity organization ArtsCan Circle, which connects artists with Indigenous youth at risk. ArtsCan also collects and delivers instruments to Indigenous communities.

With the help of friends and fellow musicians, Stevens was soon transporting loads of instruments, often in remote areas of Canada.

It's feeding something in me that a big career wouldn't have done. It's connecting me to real stuff and I wouldn't change a thing.- Mike Stevens

He recalls one community that initially left him perplexed.

"I just kept going back and going back and I'd bring instruments in, and then all the instruments would be gone the next time I'd show up. So I'd bring another two pallets worth of instruments and they'd be gone. Then I realized, they're actually using them … they're taking them into their houses and bands are forming!" says Stevens.

The last time he paid a visit, the community had an open mic night and there were 17 different acts.

Stevens has been working with indigenous youth since that fateful day in Nov. 2000, reaching out to them through music. (ArtsCan Circle/Facebook)

When asked how he has changed the communities he has visited, Stevens refuses to take any credit.

"It's not me. It's coming from within the community," says Stevens.

Stevens' passion lies with his work for ArtsCan Circle, and although it sidelined his own music career, it hasn't stopped him from continuing to record and perform when he can. He still does enough to keep a record deal, he says.

He acknowledges that he's given up a lot, and says he owes a lot to his family for understanding his desire to help Indigenous youth.

"We're getting by, we're OK," he says. "I'm rich in other ways. It's feeding something in me that a big career wouldn't have done. It's connecting me to real stuff and I wouldn't change a thing."

He recalls an incident while passing through airport in Sioux Lookout. Stevens was approached by a man he didn't recognize who said: "Remember me?"

The man then added: "'You gave me this when I was a kid.' And he pulls out this harmonica all full of teeth marks and dirt," laughs Stevens.

"That's the kind of stuff you can't measure. And it's human."