Aboriginal singer, activist Willie Dunn dies at 71

Singer-songwriter and First Nations activist Willie Dunn has died at the age of 71.

Turned poignant Ballad of Crowfoot into important NFB film

The aboriginal singer performs on the 1965 CBC-TV program 4:58

Singer-songwriter and First Nations activist Willie Dunn has died at the age of 71.

The noted musician and storyteller passed away at home in Ottawa on Monday. He had been ill for some time, according to his son, Lawrence Dunn.

"I was really proud of him: proud of his musical ability and how much people seemed to look up to his lyrics and his poetry. A lot of it was very poignant for people dealing with the issues they were dealing with. He was one of the only people saying these things," his son told CBC Radio's All in a Day.

"He was definitely a man for the people."

The seventh of eight children, Montreal-born Dunn was of Mi'kmaq, Scottish and Irish descent. After serving in the Canadian Forces, he donned many hats over the years — including poet, playwright and one-time political candidate for the NDP — but he is perhaps best known for his powerful documentary films and topical music, including his memorable song The Ballad of Crowfoot.

This is an image from Willie Dunn's 1968 NFB film, The Ballad of Crowfoot, among one of the agency's first films created by Native filmmakers. (National Film Board of Canada)

His 1968 short of the same title juxtaposes archival photos, etchings and footage of native peoples with contemporary newspaper clippings about aboriginal issues, all set against his impassioned performance of the ballad.

It was among the first movies created by the National Film Board's First Nations unit, screened in schools across Canada and it might be considered the first Canadian music video of its kind. His other NFB credits include co-directing the short These Are My People and The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson's Bay Company.

"He was the kind of guy who would always try something. He was always a go-getter. He was passionate in life," recalled his widow, Liz Moore.

Dunn "always said he was a topical folk singer," she continued, adding his songs addressed indigenous issues, the environment and nature.

Not willing to simply be labelled a protest singer, however, the actively touring performer and recording artist released music in different genres (including country and traditional aboriginal) and even set the words of William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to native drumming and chants. His full-length albums included Willie Dunn, The Pacific, Metallic and Son of the Sun.

Dunn, who also helped create musical scores for theatre and film, received several different honours during his lifetime. He was inducted into the Aboriginal Walk of Honour in Edmonton and earned a lifetime achievement prize at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

"I think he would appreciate some recognition for the issues he was trying to push forward," his son Lawrence noted.

"A lot of these issues are still something we’re facing today, like the recent Idle No More movement. It perfectly encompasses the song Crowfoot — everything he says applies, to this day."

A funeral service for Dunn will be held in Ottawa on Saturday morning.