Community remembers Nicole Edwards, Yukon musician and staunch youth advocate
The singer-songwriter founded Yukon's BYTE youth organization and battled rare disease in later years
Despite no longer being able to play instruments, Nicole Edwards didn't let her disease stop her from creating music, her friend and collaborator Andrea McColeman says.
"She was constantly creating stuff in her head, and she would sing it to me," said McColeman.
"Not just, here's the song and here's the words, but here's all the parts, and here's how it should feel, and here's the beat. She had a clear vision of what she wanted to create and was really good at communicating."
Edwards, a musician, performer, mentor and youth advocate, died on Sept. 8 at age 50, after battling a rare disease called scleroderma for many years.
The disease, which causes collagen build-up and the hardening of skin and connective tissue, took away her ability to play instruments, but not her positive attitude and passion for advocacy, says McColeman.
An obituary says Edwards "learned to adapt to chronic fatigue and pain," and "continued to serve, advocating for trauma-informed, person-centred care and generating a repertoire of songs and resources for mindfulness education" even as her condition worsened.
Edwards's death was medically assisted, it said, and "she chose to end her journey beneath her favourite aspens in her garden in Mount Lorne, Yukon" surrounded by flowers and symbols of people she loved.
"She was really a great example of how whatever you're faced with, see the positives and be grateful for what you have," said McColeman.
McColeman said Edwards never shied away from being silly, even in her later years, citing the last song she released in 2020 called "Dos Pantalones", a Spanish-language song about long johns.
A successful music career
Originally from Ontario, Edwards moved to the Yukon in 1997 where she became an integral part to the local music scene. She began her music career singing and playing the guitar as part of the band The Gathering, and went on to become one of the territory's best-known musicians.
Her musical repertoire spanned many genres and languages over the years: She performed in jazz, rock and folk styles and sang in both English and French. Her songs address themes of love, peace, and gratitude and often played an important role in her advocacy work.
"Her values of justice and equality and education and advocacy were always omnipresent," said Lucie Desaulniers, Edwards' longtime friend and fellow musician.
"Very thoughtful and inspiring."
In October 2017, Edwards celebrated her two decades in the territory with a benefit concert for Yukon Cares, a volunteer-driven organization that works to resettle and sponsor refugees in the territory.
She created light... a space for northern youth to lead.- Lucie Desaulniers
Edwards released Yukon Lullaby for Mental Health in January 2020 after spending a year confined to her bed as her chronic heath condition worsened. The album's five songs contains mindfulness tools that Edwards hoped would help the broader community.
Supporting Yukon's youth
Edwards mentored young musicians throughout her music career, which Desaulniers says directly contributed to an increase in women recording music in Whitehorse.
"She was so excited about helping youth who are starting out in the music world," said McColeman "She was always trading in her own band [members] and she would hire emerging players, younger players to kind of give them a bit of experience and mentorship."
Edwards founded the Bringing Youth Toward Equality (BYTE) organization in 1998, after finding there were few services for youth in the North at that time. The non-profit delivers programming specifically for Yukon youth, creating workshops on issues such as safe partying, combating isolation and healthy relationships.
In 2016, she was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal from the governor general for her youth advocacy work and dedication to the music industry.
"She created light … a space for northern youth to lead," said Desaulniers. "Taking every cause on through music, from mental health to grieving to mindfulness, in a very thoughtful and provocative way."
Rallying Yukon's community
The local community came together to give back to Edwards in 2019, after her friend Ruth Lera started a fundraising page to help raise money so Edwards would be able to get private home care.
Edwards' songs frequently aired on local CBC radio shows, and many CBC staff fondly remember her frequent emails to the station thanking the team for playing her music.
- This story has been updated to reflect that Edwards died at the age of 50, not 51.Sep 19, 2021 9:55 AM CT
Written by Maya Lach-Aidelbaum with files from Elyn Jones and Jane Sponagle