For Elijah Picard-Hervieux, music has been the path to everything — his language, his culture, his voice.

It's now taking the 18 year-old singer-songwriter to the North American Indigenous Games.

"Music allows me to get it all out," said Picard-Hervieux, who is attending the Games as a cultural delegate. "Sometimes I have a hard time to express myself and socialize with people."


Picard-Hervieux, left, and his grandfather Mitchell, right, have started performing together. (Courtesy Kim Picard)

The Games are the largest sporting and cultural gathering of Indigenous peoples across North America and bring together more than 5,000 participants and 2,000 volunteers.

"Nass apu tsheldeman tshekuan nepa issishuan" is Innu, meaning, "I really don't know what to say."

It is also part of the chorus of a song Picard-Hervieux's will feature in Toronto, called Nitinniun (My Life), written in French and Innu.

Picard-Hervieux comes by his love of music and performing honestly. He is the grandson of Willy Mitchell, an Algonquin musician who formed the Desert River Band, popular in the 1970's and co-organized the 1980 Sweet Grass festival in Val-d'Or, Que.

The recording of that concert was included on the compilation Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2016.

"My grandfather is really a nomad," said Picard-Hervieux, who has started performing together with him. "Every time I see him, he tells me stories and I learn a little about his knowledge."

Roots in Innu community

Picard-Hervieux grew up in Montreal and then Quebec City, far from his roots in the Innu community of Pessamit, Que., on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, about 650 kilometres downstream from Montreal. It was his mother, fashion designer Kim Picard, who made sure he stayed connected to his language and culture.

"I always tried to speak our language when it was just me and him," said Picard. "It was quite a challenge, but I never gave up." 

kim picard

Kim Picard, left, stressed the importance of the Innu language to her son at a young age. (Courtesy Kim Picard)

She remembers one time when he was about six years old. She told him to put on his shoes at school in their language, and he told her, "mom, don't speak Innu with me here."

"I told him after, 'You can never say that to me, because we are only a few people speaking that language in the whole world,'" says Picard "You have to be proud of this. And then he started building his pride."

The fight to stay connected to his language and culture has become so important to Picard-Hervieux, he pushed his mom to move back to Pessamit in 2014 so he could improve his language skills and graduate surrounded by his family, friends and his culture.

Soon after returning to the community, Picard-Hervieux took part in a program to help First Nations youth learn documentary and video production, called Wapikoni Mobile. He produced a video for his song Nitinniun (My Life).

For Picard-Hervieux, the Innu language is now at the heart of his music.

"I'm proud to sing in my Innu language," said Picard-Hervieux, who was one of the artists peforming at the CBC viewing party of the opening ceremony on Sunday. "Our language and our culture, we can lose it...just like we can protect it. It's essential."

Picard-Hervieux is schedule to perform at McMaster University on Tuesday at 6:50 p.m. ET, and then Tuesday at York University at 6:50 p.m. ET.