Montreal·First Person

How Greg Keelor's visit to Waskaganish brought 'Share the Love' to the world

Growing up on Blue Rodeo's music, it seemed impossible that we'd ever see them live.

Growing up on Blue Rodeo's music, it seemed impossible that we'd ever see them live

Charles showed Greg Keelor around Waskaganish when Blue Rodeo came to perform for the town's 350th anniversary in 2018. (Submitted by Charles J. Hester)

This First Person article is the experience of Charles Hester, the director of culture, sports, leisure and tourism for the Cree Nation of Waskaganish. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

In the late 80s, life was simple in Waskaganish, a remote Cree community on the shores of James Bay in Northern Quebec. There was no internet, no permanent access road and the only way out of the community during summer was an expensive plane ride. There was not much happening in Waskaganish during those days, but we were happy.

Fortunately, we had cable TV with a few American stations and local radio to entertain us. I came to know and love the music of Blue Rodeo through television shows such as CBC's Video Hits. I would rush home after school to catch the latest episode. Sometimes, I would record new music videos on VHS tapes. I guess you can say I was downloading music. 

This was the only way I was able to access the latest chart-topping songs. Our local radio often did not have access to that music until one of their executives was able to hop on a plane to the south to purchase it from HMV and other music stores.

My wife (then girlfriend) Pauline and I would spend our evenings watching music videos that I recorded on VHS tapes.  My library of music videos was popular among my friends and my sibling's friends. Our friends often came over to watch music videos. This was especially true when a music video for a new, popular song was released. "Try" from Blue Rodeo was one of everyone's favourites.

The artists we saw on the TV screen seemed to be living a world away when compared to our remote village. The thought of someday meeting these celebrities had never crossed my mind. Perhaps it was because that notion seemed impossible.

But almost 30 years later, I found myself sitting in a boardroom with my colleagues discussing which bands to invite for our community's 350th anniversary celebrations. The committee agreed unanimously that one of the bands to be invited would be Blue Rodeo. A few months later, Blue Rodeo's management confirmed the band was available and had accepted our invitation. The whole town was excited.

It was a great pleasure to finally meet Greg Keelor, Jim Cuddy and the band. I got the chance to spend more time with Greg Keelor as he was on an earlier flight.

I shared with Greg the history of the community and its people. He was genuinely interested in learning about the Cree Nation. The tale of how the Cree Nation overcame poverty and despair to become one of the most successful First Nations in Canada is a story I never get tired of sharing. The inspirational story of how the Crees of Quebec went from living in teepees and canvas-covered tents to beautiful modern homes in a span of 40 years.

I had the impression that Mr. Keelor was sympathetic and fascinated with the story of my people. I didn't know it at the time, but his visit to Waskaganish inspired his new record, Share the Love.

Greg's curiosity led him to ask about the "Share the Love" signs he saw posted throughout the community. I shared with Greg the story of the late Claudia Stephen. Claudia was sent to a hospital in the south for a routine operation. Unfortunately, there were complications and we lost her.

The liner notes for Greg Keelor's solo album Share the Love include a photo of the artwork he saw on his visit to Waskaganish. (Submitted by Warner Music Canada)

The community was in shock when news broke of her passing. Many people started sharing stories of how Claudia had helped them. All these acts of kindness were mostly done in secret and Claudia had asked for nothing in return. 

She was not doing this for recognition, either. In today's age of social media, many people boast on the good deeds they have done for the community. This was not Claudia's style.

I explained to Mr. Keelor that the signs throughout the community were Claudia's friends and family's doing. They felt that this would be the best way to honour Claudia's legacy of love and kindness. The signs are a daily reminder of Claudia's love and support for her people and community. It is my hope that it inspires all community members to continue the wonderful acts of love and kindness in Claudia's honour.

The 'Share the Love' campaign started in Waskaganish after the death of Claudia Stephen. (Submitted by Charles J. Hester)

Claudia had a way to make everyone feel special and appreciated. Her co-workers at the municipal garage revealed that she would make sure everyone got a cake on their birthday. When she started working at the garage, one of the first things she did was to compile a list of all her colleagues' birthdays.

Perhaps this "Share the Love" message is something we all need to hear during this time. 

The pandemic has impacted many people in different ways.  Some people may be struggling financially due to the economic breakdown. People need our love and support more than ever. If Claudia were still here with us, I am sure she would do her part to help those in need. 

When Blue Rodeo finally took the stage at the Rupert River Sports Complex, my wife and I along with our friends were in the front row, singing along to "Try" just like we did in the 80s in my parents' living room. 

Earlier in the day, Jim Cuddy told me he collects hockey jerseys of the local senior team everywhere he performs. Our son Brett happened to be the captain of the local Senior A team, the Waskaganish Wings, and he gladly volunteered his jersey. Cuddy said #93 is perfect for him, smiling as he said he's a big Doug Gilmour fan.

Watching Jim wearing our son's hockey jersey as he performed "Try" was something special for me and my wife. She looked at me with a big smile. She did not have to say anything, I was able to see it all in her face. I felt the same. In that moment, I acknowledge the great strides our community has made. Nothing seemed so impossible anymore.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles J. Hester is an Indigenous person (Cree) from Waskaganish, Eeyou Istchee, Quebec. He is currently employed by the Cree Nation of Waskaganish as director of culture, sports, leisure and tourism.

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