John Kim Bell was North America's first Indigenous conductor — now he's a Governor General's Award winner

Hes conducted for the Royal Philharmonic, worked with The Bee Gees, and founded the Indspire Awards. This weekend, he'll be honoured with a 2023 Governor General's Performing Arts Award.

He's conducted for the Royal Philharmonic, worked with The Bee Gees, and founded the Indspire Awards

Conductor John Kim Bell, wearing a suit and tie with a sash around his neck
Conductor and philanthropist John Kim Bell in the recipient of a Governor General's Performing Arts Award. (V. Tony Hauser)

This is part of a series of articles about the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureates

Judged on his creative endeavours alone, John Kim Bell would be a worthy candidate for a Governor General's Performing Arts Award.

Born in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory and raised between Kahnawake and Columbus, Ohio, Bell was conducting on Broadway when he was just 18, working with the likes of Vincent Price, Gene Kelly and Lauren Bacall. From there, he became an apprentice conductor at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, making him the first Indigenous person to conduct an orchestra. In 1984, the CBC made a documentary about him called John Kim Bell: The First North American Indian Conductor.

He then went on to conduct the orchestra for the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Philharmonic, among others. He wrote the score for the first contemporary Indigenous ballet, In the Land of the Spirit, in 1988. And he's even worked with The Bee Gees.

If John Kim Bell did all that and just hung up his conductor's baton at some point in the middle of the 1990s, doing nothing more after that, he'd still deserve a lifetime achievement award. But that is just a fraction of what John Kim Bell has done with his life. The true hallmark of John Kim Bell's career is what he's done for both the Indigenous community and for artists.

In a 2016 interview with Muskrat Magazine, Bell said that after the CBC documentary first aired in the 80s, he started receiving a lot of requests to speak in First Nations communities. What he saw in some of those communities made him want to act.

"I was familiar with my own community, which isn't as impoverished as others," he told Muskrat. "Some of the northern reserves are pretty bad off. I had no idea about those because I hadn't really visited any other reserve communities other than my own. But when I did go, what I saw shocked me."

"I was young, emotional, passionate and thought this was terrible. I wanted to do something to make a contribution."

In 1985, he started the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now known as Indspire, to provide bursaries and scholarships to Indigenous students in all disciplines. In his interview with Muskrat, Bell explained that he wanted to move beyond just providing financial assistance — he wanted to change how other Canadians saw Indigenous people, and how Indigenous people saw themselves.

In 1993, he had the idea to start an awards show to highlight Indigenous achievements in a variety of fields. The idea for Indspire came to him, in part, while he was watching Parliamentary hearings late one night. 

"I was watching the CRTC hearing," he recalled to Muskrat. "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 licence.'"

"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."

That show, now known as the Indspire Awards, still airs on CBC every year. Over the years, they've honoured such artistic luminaries as singer Susan Aglukark, visual artist Kent Monkman and documentarian Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell. 

John Kim Bell has had two award-worthy careers: one as a conductor and composer in his own right, and the other as a philanthropist and advocate. When you look at it that way, one Governor General's award almost doesn't seem like enough.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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