How Canadian pop star Tyler Shaw wound up performing in Attawapiskat

Staff from a Toronto high school helped bring the singer to the remote Indigenous community in Northern Ontario.

Toronto school staff helped bring Coquitlam-raised singer to remote Indigenous community

Rising Canadian pop star Tyler Shaw was in Attawapiskat this week, hanging out with youth in the community after his three performances. (Daniel Romano)

Attawapiskat high school student Marlen PaulMartin says lots of people in her neighbourhood walk around with headphones in their ears.

That's because music, she says, is a "big thing" in the remote Indigenous community that's often in the spotlight for the darker sides of life.

"I know a lot of kids up here listen to music to help their problems," says the 21-year-old. "It helped mine, when I was younger."

Music became the common thread bringing some unlikely people together this week: Residents of Attawapiskat, some Toronto volunteers, and rising Canadian pop star Tyler Shaw.

The 2014 Juno Award nominee for breakout artist of the year made his way to Attawapiskat thanks to a collaboration between his management team, Toronto-based MDC Media Group, and the Project 5 organizers from Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.

"What a special time," the singer posted on Instagram after his three performances in the Northern Ontario community on Thursday.

Last summer, students and teachers from Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton headed up to Attawapiskat to run a soccer tournament. Daniel Romano, who coached the soccer team that travelled up last June, went back for Thursday's concerts, and says his colleague, social worker Paulo Pereira, helped make the connection with Shaw's management.

Returning to Attawapiskat for Shaw's three shows — one at each of the two schools, and another for the whole community — was a great experience, Romano says.

"In the past year, let's say, Attawapiskat was in the media in a really negative way. There was a suicide crisis there. They were portrayed as a community with flooding," he says.

But he says music, performed by someone young people can watch on TV and YouTube, was meant to be inspiring.

Romano says Shaw's management team also donated musical instruments, like guitars and flutes, to put a lasting music program in place. "They didn't just want to go there, play a little music, and be done with it," he says.

Attawapiskat resident Rosie Koostathin ​attended the community concert on Thursday night, and says the donation is good news for youth in the community.

"It gives them a hope... because first of all, because they're donated, it makes them feel people out there care for them," she says.

Canadian pop star Tyler Shaw performs at the elementary school in Attawapiskat on Thursday. (Daniel Romano)

Access to music also inspires young people to be themselves, she says, and maybe even follow of the footsteps of Shaw, a 23-year-old pop singer from Coquitlam, British Columbia whose track 'House Of Cards' officially went gold back in August 2015.

"You never know where they can get," Koostathin says.

PaulMartin says seeing Shaw perform left her feeling a little starstruck at first. And she says it was a unique experience, because seeing concerts is a pricey, difficult thing to do for people living in her community.

But while she appreciates the performances and donations, PaulMartin stresses that Attawapiskat isn't the sad, tragic place people think it is.

"It's beautiful up here," she says. "You just have to look — and see."