9 Indigenous musicians reflect on what truth and reconciliation means to them

CBC Indigenous and CBC Music partnered to ask First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians from different genres across the country a number of questions around truth and reconciliation in their music and lives. 

We talk to First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians ahead of the 1st National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

CBC Indigenous and CBC Music partnered to ask First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians a number of questions around truth and reconciliation in their music and lives. (Courtesy of artists; Alexi Hobbs; design by CBC Music)

"Truth, then reckoning, and then reconciliation." — Melody McKiver

In late May, Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc in B.C. announced preliminary findings of a ground penetrating radar search of the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. Approximately 200 potential burial sites have been identified. Other searches are underway at sites across Canada, and more than 1,000 potential unmarked burials were found over the summer. This has brought Indigenous issues and the truth behind Canada's history of colonization to the forefront of Canadians' minds. 

In June, the federal government passed legislation making Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation statutory holiday, a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action No. 80. The day is meant to honour residential school survivors, their families and the children who did not make it home. 

CBC Indigenous and CBC Music partnered to ask First Nations, Inuit and Métis musicians from different genres across the country a number of questions around truth and reconciliation in their music and lives. 

Editor's note: all interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Artist: Aysanabee
From: Sandy Lake First Nation, Northern Ontario

Aysanabee is an Oji-Cree singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who's currently based in Toronto. 

On what reconciliation means to him:

Reconciliation, yeah, that's a tough one. I think just giving Indigenous people the space to reconnect with themselves or stay connected with themselves and having the resources to do that. 

On how he feels his work connects to reconciliation:

In the simplest sense I create art and people enjoy it and experience it, but I suppose that's kind of the bare minimum [laughs]. I think that the only thing with reconciliation, that's the rebuilding of community and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. So I think when you frame it that way — I just think about the underlying meaning so I don't want to give anyone a pat on the back for work that I don't feel has been done. I'll be telling my grandfather's story, my story [in an upcoming album]. And, you know, a lot of the help is actually coming from Ishkōdé, and that's an Indigenous-led label so it's just Indigenous people helping Indigenous people. And I don't feel like that is quite reconciliation. That's just us doing the work. 

On how he'd like to see that change:

I do like seeing that there are more grant opportunities and funding coming in, [but] just giving Indigenous artists the resources to do that, just to make art and kind of get on the same playing field, I guess. Music is a privilege, it's not a right in this society. It takes a lot of resources to make an album . . . .  I feel like just having those grants is great, but even to be honest, I'm running into issues with the criteria around it. I'm not sure who makes the criteria of getting these grants, but I find there's already barriers I'm running into where it's like, I suppose it's different levels of what makes a professional artist or a professional musician? Maybe they have Indigenous consultation somewhere, but it's something I feel maybe gets lost in translation because I feel like there's a huge lack of resources, a huge lack of teams and the greater scope of Indigenous artists won't meet this criteria. And those are the people who need this grant money the most — not so much these established people who already have, you know, 12-people teams and all of these other resources. 

On a song he'd like people to listen to at this time:

ShoShona [Kish] and Digging Roots, they just released a song called The Healer which I think is pretty timely. I think it touches directly on that — I think the chorus goes, "No more suffering/ no more suffering." It's pretty blunt in its words. 

Artist: Beatrice Deer
From: Quaqtaq, Que., currently based in Montreal.

Beatrice Deer is an Inuk singer from Quaqtaq, in the Nunavik region of Quebec. Deer has released five albums, each deepening her trademark blend of traditional Inuit throat singing with contemporary indie rock.

On what the word reconciliation means to her: 

Reconciliation to me means two parties acknowledging what happened and validating one another for feelings and emotions, the damage and agreeing to fix what's broken. 

Beatrice Deer is an Inuk singer from Quaqtaq, Nunavik. (Alexi Hobbs)

Her feelings on reconciliation considering everything that's been happening over the last year:

It just reveals how deceitful the government has been throughout this century and how much it's willing to hide the truth, which is refusing to be accountable for what they did to our people by not giving dignity to those children. It's extremely painful to imagine what those families experienced when their children did not come back and not knowing what happened to them, not having the proper ceremonies to say their goodbyes and to have closure and multiply that by the thousands. It's unspeakable, it's so heartbreaking. It makes it hard for trust to begin. 

Recognizing truth and reconciliation beyond Sept. 30:

It can't be just acknowledged one day a year. It's such a massive, massive issue with very deep-rooted holds that it needs a lot of work and dedication from everyone, the Canadians as a whole. And for us Indigenous people, we must take control of our lives and choose to heal, choose to forgive.

Artist: Elisapie
From: Salluit, Que., currently based in Montreal

Elisapie is an Inuk singer-songwriter and filmmaker. Her last album, the Polaris-shortlisted and Juno-nominated The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, honoured formative Inuit artists from the 1960s and '70s, including Willie Dunn and Willie Thrasher. Elisapie will be hosting the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation CBC-TV broadcast special on Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. AT, 9:30 p.m. NT).

On what the word reconciliation means to her: 

I think reconciliation is a very strong [word], it's something we want to reach.... but I think the word before that, which is "truth," I think we should still focus on that first, you know? I think we have not gone far enough in hearing each other, hearing Indigenous truth.... So for me, I think reconciliation is something we should all look forward to, but in the meanwhile I think we should listen to each other and really connect to each other and recognize many, many things that enable us to get there. So I think we all have a responsibility. I think Indigenous people do a lot already. And I think the other half, in order to meet somewhere, must start moving. Maybe quicker! Because we get impatient, also. We get impatient because we have the role all the time to be the people that need to be fixed or that need to change or that need to heal. But I think everybody needs to heal.

Elisapie is an Inuk singer-songwriter and filmmaker based in Montreal. (Vanessa Heins)

On having a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and how to honour it for more than one day a year: 

It's a pretty big deal because not necessarily for us, it's also for non-Indigenous people to actually sit down over supper and talk, and talk among each other. You know, this is also the time for non-Indigenous people, for all Canadians to be able to really sit and face the fact that there is now a day for Indigenous people and also for what we call truth and reconciliation, which is — if this dialogue is not happening among us, then we're just not going to go anywhere and we're just going to be very ignorant. And I think this is an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to really, really have a good conversation with grandpapa and the mother and the aunt and the children, you know? It's a pretty big deal. I think it's going to have a very big impact for sure on how we are viewed and where our place is as Indigenous people…. Like I always say, this is our story. But this is definitely your story, too. So get on with it and discuss and face those uncomfortable questions and try to find the answers, too, right? 

On a song she'd like people to listen to at this time:

The late Willie Dunn, this amazing Indigenous singer, songwriter, activist, filmmaker. Every Canadian should know Willie Dunn. He wrote a song called I Pity the Country. It's a very strong, strong phrase, but there's so much beauty and truth in that song and with his voice.

Artist: Gator Beaulieu
From: Ebb and Flow First Nation and Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, Manitoba

Gator Beaulieu is an emerging Anishinaabe country-folk musician who has been playing music since he was a teen, and is now starting to pursue it as a career.

On what reconciliation means to him:

Reconciliation, that's bringing light to Canada's dark, dark past and the mistreatment of our people and whatnot, and to address that and to make steps toward those changes and those calls to action. That's kind of a deep, deep question for me, too, because I'm directly affected by this. My dad's a residential day school survivor, so's my mom. My kookoo, my grandparents and whatnot. And the older I get, the darker my past gets, right? And my mom growing up and my dad, they never shied away from talking about their experiences and what they've had to go through with experiencing their intergenerational [trauma] because they're first-generation survivors from, you know, my grandparents and stuff like that. And my dad's a Sixties Scoop survivor as well. The list goes on and on and on.

'To do something I love, and to keep being able to be a working musician and to be a role model for my own family, my own people, makes me damn happy.' — Gator Beaulieu (Submitted by Gator Beaulieu)

On how some of his work relates to truth and reconciliation:

I wrote a song called 215 that was my response to that first finding of [potential burial sites] and, you know, that was my little statement tune that I wrote. But that [news] threw my whole family off for weeks after that. A lot of us kind of sat, [then started] pacing back and forth. But also, for years I've been mentored by Buffy Handel at the Aboriginal School of Dance. So under her I've been a powwow dance instructor as well. And we've had the opportunity to travel to different communities and share different stories and share our culture through dance and song and whatnot for four years.

Editor's note: Beaulieu hasn't recorded 215 yet, but he plans to.

On a song he'd like people to listen to at this time:

Yeah, I actually released a video for my song Highway Number Six. I grew up here in the south here in Ebb and Flow and Brandon, grew up in Sandy Bay and Winnipeg. But then my parents' careers took us up north to Norway House [Cree Nation] so we got to experience northern life. But also growing up on the powwow trail and whatnot, you know, we're good at making friends and family wherever we go. And so we planted roots in Norway House and ended up coming back to Winnipeg here when I was only 18. But Highway 6 is a highway that starts here in Winnipeg and goes all the way up past Thompson, Man. So right up north to northern Manitoba. To me, I always thought of that highway as a bridge.... I tell you, I feel at home in every one of [those communities], because our people are very much the same. So that song is a little bit about going back home. 

Artist: Jayli Wolf
From: Saulteau First Nations, B.C.

Jayli Wolf is a musician, actor and writer. She is currently based in Toronto, but has family from Saulteau First Nations in B.C.

On what the word reconciliation means to her: 

Trying to make relationships better. I don't think about reconciliation a whole lot because all I know to do right now is to reclaim my culture and to work on things like learning my language and not losing the recipes of my great grandmother and things like that. That's what I'm working on. But, you know, obviously, I think it's beautiful that there's been so much more conversation this year, especially under unfortunate circumstances.

Jayli Wolf is a member of Saulteau First Nations, B.C. and said she is focusing on reclamation more than reconciliation in her own life. (Hayden Wolf)

These stories had to be talked about, and even though it's triggering, it's like these things did have to happen. These children needed to come home and people are waking up to the realization. I can't believe how many people were unaware of the true history of this nation.

A piece of work that relates to reconciliation

I have a song called Child of the Government, which is about the Sixties Scoop. So it's about my father's story of how my grandmother was shamed and put into this very odd hospital where nurses were all part of the Catholic Church. It was the Canadian government and the Catholic Church that worked together to take away Indigenous children and babies. There are accounts of children being sold as far as Australia and New Zealand, and their adoption papers were changed. My dad's adoption papers changed that to say he was not Indigenous. He lost his identity. Or it was stolen from him, I should say. 

On healing through writing: 

In the music that I've been writing, I've been experiencing a lot of healing. Reclaiming my culture and just learning about my culture and the knowledge that I now have. How much healing that's done for me, that's been the greatest part. I think about finding my family. I wrote this music for my own healing. The more we talk about it, the more we realize how we're not alone. 

Child of the Government came out so organically. I sat down and I just was feeling angry and all of a sudden it just all poured out. I had a couple of lines where I wanted to tweak, but honestly, it was just straight from where I was feeling at that time. 

I actually had my biological dad acting[in the music video], which is interesting. I was very scared that he wouldn't want me to put this out, especially because I use his voice. He used to call me a lot when he was drunk, and I would record it because I wanted him to hear how he sounded. 

And so this one particular day he called and I was in the studio and I recorded it, and I thought that was kind of an apology. So I always remembered that he had called me that night and after I wrote the song, I was like, "Oh, I wonder if I still have that recording?" And when I put it in, I thought there's no way he's going to let me show this vulnerable side of him where he's saying he's alone and he doesn't have anybody. And he was fine with it. He actually had some tears when I showed him the song, and it's been really healing for him, too. 

Artist: Jonathon Adams
From: amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton)

Born in amiskwaciwâskahikan, Jonathon Adams is a two-spirit, nêhiyaw michif (Cree Métis) baritone who studies and performs classical music across the world.

On what reconciliation means to them:

Reconciliation is a word in our current climate that is used to make white settlers feel better about their role in colonial genocide. I know what it's meant to mean, but I tend to use the term "Indigenous resurgence" because that's really what puts our culture forward. It shows the fact that we're still here, that we're making, that we're creating and we're not only survivors, but we're really flourishing. It's like an Indigenous renaissance in the arts at the moment. 

A piece of their work that relates to residential schools, and/or reconciliation:

I tend to focus on the aspect of resurgence and of the continuum of storytelling. And it's really amazing to me considering, you know, the potlatch ban, considering all of the ways in which our stories and our cultures have been oppressed by the colonizers. It's amazing to see how many things have survived and how many things are still left for us to explore, whether it's in written form, whether it's passed down from our elders. I mean, I tend to look at my work as a form of resurgence in itself. My two-spirit identity is part of that work.

Indigenous resurgence versus reconciliation:

To define resurgence, I think we're looking at a point in time where Indigenous artists across Turtle Island and across the world are going back to their roots, going back to the stories that have been passed down for millennia and re-interpreting, re-energizing and reinvestigating their meanings. And I think that that only serves to strengthen our communities.

I would say that reconciliation can only take place once the general population, including and especially white settlers, are ready to hear our stories and ready to give them a proper place within curriculums, within bodies of governance, Indigenous ways of knowing. Storytelling is the way in which we, as Indigenous people, have preserved the most important parts of our culture. 

Recognizing truth and reconciliation beyond Sept 30:

It is understandable that non-Indigenous people who live in what's known as Canada need an emblem or need a focal point to understand the grief that we live with. But to really understand that aspect of what genocide has done to Indigenous communities and Indigenous people, the white settlers in Canada really have to reach out. And I'm not talking about asking Indigenous people to do more labour to tell their stories of grief and of suffering. 

But I mean, they have to reach out and ask what they can do, ask what they can do to support Indigenous sovereignty, ask what they can do to support Indigenous arts and practices of cultural resurgence.

Artist: Kris Harper
From: amiskwaciy (Edmonton), from Onion Lake Cree Nation, Saskatchewan

Kris Harper is a nêhiyaw artist who currently releases music under the moniker Ag47 (with Jason Borys and Courteney Morin). He was the vocalist/guitarist in the Polaris Prize-shortlisted band nêhiyawak.

On what the word reconciliation means:

Looking into [the etymology of] reconciliation specifically, there is kind of reference to the word "placate." As well as kind of like "entertain" and/or "amuse." So this is kind of for me, I think, even in the work I had been doing with nêhiyawak as well as this work that I'm doing with Ag47, it's a lot about recognition.... And to really recognize and define what happened. Who our families were, which people were directly impacted by some of these decisions that at this point are still asserting their authority, if you will, upon foreign land.

On how some of his work relates to truth and reconciliation:

One of the projects we did, Jason [Borys from Ag47] and I, was to record a conversation with one of these relatives [of a historical family in amiskwaciy] who goes by the name of William Quinn, and Bill has actually since transitioned [died]. But at the time that we did the recording, our concept that we gave to Bill was, "Hey, if you had a message for youth of the future, what would it be?" ... So Bill made these tapes and there's one on the way as well. So we made a kind of teaser for what these conversations are about, and it was called "Introducing William Quinn." 

With the band nêhiyawak, many of the tracks on [debut and Polaris-shortlisted album nipiy] were all based upon this notion of recognition, Indigenous history, all kinds of things. Starlight was one of the first songs I wrote in, I would say 2012, where I really was trying to take a word that you could use to describe things in a very kind of nice way, starlight and whatnot. But I knew that the word had a different connotation in relationship to starlight tours. And so for me this idea of creating a beautiful sound, a beautiful song, maybe a song of longing or missing or something, but was also actually implementing language that is currently used to describe some incredibly atrocious realities of our colonial environment.

On a song he'd like people to listen to at this time:

I think that the conversations being had everywhere are so important, [but] because I do feel like this person's work is so important and their language has been so important for me in my life, I am going to suggest Budi [Nick Dourado]. But the thing is, I do kind of feel like not all of this conversation includes words, and so a lot of Nick's music is instrumental.... So Nick and Budi, the song Hurton, off the album /World/Go/Duh really has spoken to me and I think it speaks to a lot of people and also shows them what this kind of work can look and sound like. 

Artist: Melody McKiver
From: Lac Seul First Nation, Ontario, formerly a resident of Sioux Lookout and currently in Brandon, Man.

Melody McKiver is an Anishinaabe musician and composer, as well as a violinist, violist, drummer, percussionist and producer. They are currently an assistant professor of composition in Brandon University's School of Music.

On what reconciliation means to them:

For me, I'm highly skeptical of the endeavour and I think what myself and many other communities believe is we're still working on the truth part. So reconciliation is perhaps an aspirational goal.... For me, it feels a bit too abstract and, I don't know, reconciliatory, to really feel particularly optimistic about the endeavour. And I think the past couple of months were just deeply frustrating for me as someone that participated and observed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's process over the last number of years. to see how shocked people were by the — I don't even want to say discovery of [unmarked graves] on multiple residential school sites, but the deeper understanding of those numbers. Because I think residential school survivors have known about these for as long as they've been happening. There's a whole book about it in the Truth and Reconciliation's findings

Melody McKiver said they're 'highly skeptical' of reconciliation while truth is still being worked on. (John Paillé )

I'm definitely inspired by past collaborations with Tara Began, the playwright. But truth, then reckoning, and then reconciliation…. Right now the focus is really on residential schools, and I'm the grandchild of a residential school survivor. Many of my immediate family members are survivors. So I feel that legacy and impact really strongly. 

On how some of their work relates to truth and reconciliation:

I believe that a really recurring theme of responsibilities that we carry as those that are working and performing in visual arts is to take up that role of a storyteller and to express different viewpoints and experiences. And so my work, how it's been taken up in recent years, is increasingly working more in the classical music sphere.... But to have that responsibility as a storyteller, I think, is to be able to be something of a voice of dissent, because I recognize that Canadian classical music has had its own motives and goals over the last century of work, and much of it has been explicitly harmful to Indigenous people as well.

My debut album was Reckoning, which was the score to Tara Began's play of the same name. So that was hitting on many of those themes that I think that we're discussing where Tara was also reflecting on that TRC process and thinking about the different impacts and intergenerational legacies of residential schools. 

On a song they'd like people to listen to at this time:

My friend Nick Sherman just recently released a music video for one of his older songs, Winter Dark, and he is a singer-songwriter that was also raised in Sioux Lookout, kind of one of our neighbouring communities, Kawagama Lake. But specifically in terms of discussing reconciliation and residential school legacies, I think it's important to really acknowledge the youth that are still living through very similar conditions. So Winter Dark talks about the ongoing lived reality of Indigenous students in northwestern Ontario that need to leave their homes and live in boarding homes for the entirety of the school year. And I don't think most of Canada is really aware of this dynamic that continues to this day, or really reflects on what that means.... For me, to think about residential schools, I think it's like, how does this legacy continue? 

Artist: Rhonda Head
From: Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Manitoba

Rhonda Head is an international award-winning mezzo-soprano, songwriter and composer from northern Manitoba.She also works with the Manitoba Arts Network with emerging Indigenous artists.

On what does reconciliation means to her:

Reconciliation means Canada accepting the Indigenous population into our own land, excluded [for] 500 years and then genocide occurred in our nation. It's time they reconcile those relationships that were severed in those years of residential school. And it's about time that they start building and repairing those relationships. 

On a piece of her work that relates to residential schools, and/or reconciliation:

My song 500 Years. I wrote about it with my late mother. She went to residential school and she told me some of her experiences. She didn't tell me all of them, as she went through such a traumatic time when she went to residential school. So the song I wrote was always about her and I re-released it again, and I'm dedicating it to the children that never came home from residential school.

On whether everything that's been happening over the last year or more changed what she thinks or feels about reconciliation:

It hasn't really changed the way I feel, because we've been hearing these stories all forever, since our parents talked about it, our grandparents talked about it. The only thing different from then and now is that no one was listening to our parents or grandparents, even though they were sharing the stories and the fact that when the 215 children were found in Kamloops, that created a big wave, and the realization of what happened to our people. We already knew about it. And when that news came out, I'm sure it triggered everyone that experienced residential school. But we already knew the stories that went on in residential schools.