Indigenous

From residential school to meme king, Cree musician Ernest Monias has had a long journey

Known as the Elvis of the north, Ernest Monias has been on the music scene since the late 1970s. Over the last five years he has seen an increase in popularity, especially among younger people, thanks to being meme'd on social media.

The king of the north turns 71 Wednesday, with birthday concert in Winnipeg

Ernest Monias fell in love with music at 13 and then taught himself how to play instruments while attending the residential school in Portage la Prairie, Man. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

It has been over 40 years since Cree recording artist Ernest Monias recorded his first studio record, but thanks to memes on social media, his popularity is higher than ever before.

"The younger generation, they call me the meme king and I'd like to thank all the people out there on social media," said Monias, who is celebrating his 71st birthday on Wednesday.

Monias was born in Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) Cree Nation and has been on the Indigenous music scene since the late 1970s.

Known as the "Elvis of the north," he says his most popular song is If I wanted you girl off the first studio album that he recorded in 1979.

In the last few years, his image has ended up in countless memes on social media. Some of the memes have jokes about him "snagging" people's kokums (grandmothers), while others wink at his status as "the king of the north."

Watch: Ernest Monias talks about where the King of the North nickname comes from:

Ernest Monias talks about where the King of the North nickname comes from. 0:25

Tim Coughlan, creator of Irishinaabe Memes Facebook page, often makes memes of Monias. He says that Monias loves being shown the memes in person and is a good sport about it.

"He will ask me to take a picture of him and to make a meme of that," said Coughlan.

Monias recognizes that Indigenous meme culture has given his popularity a boost during the latter stages of his career, and it's something that he is grateful for.

"Some of them are good, some of them are bad and some of them are way too extreme," said Monias. 

"But that's OK. I don't mind. But don't overdo it!"

Tim Coughlan is behind Irishinaabe Memes on Facebook. His page is one of many that have meme'd Ernest Monias over the years. (Submitted by Tim Coughlan/Facebook.)

Early life

When he was four years old, Monias moved from Pimicikamak to Wabowden, a northern Manitoba town, where he attended day school.

He lived in the small community and attended day school there from age four to 13.

At 13, he moved back to his rez and that is when he first fell in love with music.

"There were young local guys playing guitar, that's how I got interested," said Monias. 

"They showed me three chords and I took it from there."

After learning those three chords, Monias had to move to Portage La Prairie so he could attend residential school.

While attending the school, he joined the choir and taught himself how to play the instruments that were there.

"The place where I stayed, they had equipment," said Monias.

"That was good for me. I didn't feel homesick at all. There were a lot of instruments at the residence."

When Monias wasn't in residential school, he stayed with his grandma and said that he learned a lot from living with her.

"My grandmother who raised me back then told me I got to work... I finished Grade 12 at least anyway, so she taught me a lot."

After finishing school and prior to becoming a full time musician, Monias worked jobs in construction, on hydro projects, with the Canadian National Railway, and was also elected as a band councillor in his community.

Making music

Monias was inspired by artists like George Jones and Hank Williams Sr. He would go back on forth on the radio dial between the country and rock and roll stations and would eventually combine the two genres to make his own style.

He describes that sound as country-rock and said he has faced criticism over the years for his music. He said the biggest criticism that he faced came from his grandma.

"My grandmother told me… 'You are going to be a singer. But listen, don't just sing these crazy songs, you think about the Creator and you sing some of these songs, too.' That's how I got into gospel and even Christmas songs," he said.

Monias didn't get a chance to record a studio album until he was 30. That's when he met Indigenous music pioneer Ray St. Germain, and St. Germain encouraged him to record a studio album.

His first studio album titled Original Recordings is still available on Sunshine Records, and he says it's his most popular album.

Since that first album was released in 1979, Monias has released 22 albums.

The long road

Pimicikamak has taken pride in being the home of "the King of the north." A few years ago the First Nation put up a billboard of him near the entrance to the reserve.

Watch: Ernest Monias talks about being honoured by his hometown:

Ernest Monias talks about having a billboard of his image near the entrance of his First Nation. 0:30

Although he enjoys his lasting popularity, Monias acknowledges that his life hasn't been easy and that there are hardships that come with being an Indigenous musician.

"I say it's a long struggle. That road is not straight. It's rough and rocky… but if you have that desire in you, go for it," he said.

Despite turning 71 on Wednesday, Monias is not sure when he will retire or stop performing live. 

He'll perform at the Westbrook Inn for his birthday celebration on Wednesday night, saying it will be his last birthday performance in a public setting.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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