I have been thinking a lot about Indigenous story and music in Canada following the release of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in December of 2018 (http://www.trc.ca/). Since then I have challenged myself to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America and to explore what I can do as an artist and person of Settler heritage in acknowledging my ignorance and complicit support of the status quo around these issues.  

Recently Canadian Art Song Project invited mezzo soprano Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations) and composer Ian Cusson (Métis) to join me for a podcast discussion focusing on the treatment of songs and stories of First Nations, and Métis peoples in art song and art music.  I wanted to have this conversation in a “public” way as I thought that, although it would likely be uncomfortable for me, it would be valuable for artists, musicians, and teachers who are programming and performing Canadian song with a commitment to inclusivity within the scope of Canadian music.

During the conversation we listened to and read through a few scores that use some Indigenous material. The examples were by composers Sir Ernest MacMillan, Harry Somers, Harry Freedman, Jean Coulthard, Chester Duncan, Malcolm Forsyth and Sylvia Rickard and we discussed whether the works were now inappropriate for performance given the importance and significance of the Truth and Reconciliation process. 

It became quite clear to me that not only is there a great deal of music that probably should no longer be performed, but that a great number of works utilize texts and or music that was collected by “ethnographers” from various Nations across the continent. This process of collection, though very popular in the beginning of the 20th century, now raises serious concerns about appropriation and misuse of material that is the hereditary property of individuals and families from Indigenous communities, not the collectors and translators of the stories who published them. 

In the days following our discussion, I came to the personal opinion that although there is a great deal of music in Canada that has been composed in the spirit of celebrating Indigenous peoples, most of it has been composed using songs and stories that are not fully understood by the composers or performers. Nor, unlike folk songs, were these materials ever truly available to use as common sources for composition.  As such, I believe that the only proper course of action for all who promote Canadian art and music, is to work with Indigenous leaders and engage in repatriating these stories and songs to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities they belong. Out of respect for this moment in time, musicians and artists should only perform music that has been composed and created in consultation with the communities who hold these songs and stories. This may mean the shelving of all works in which material was used without direct permission from those communities.

An example of the process that could be followed is the one developed for the return of the Kuyas aria from Somers’ Louis Riel (1967). That song has now been removed from the opera and will be replaced by an aria written by composer Ian Cusson (Métis). The reality, of course, is that songs and texts cannot be simply replaced in art music and therefore the only way to address such concerns raised by these pieces and works is to not perform them, but leave them in libraries as reference materials for study.

At the same time that we limit the performing of works that sourced material from Canada’s troubling past, we have a duty to work with artists of Indigenous heritage to create works that can tell stories now in a transparent and meaningful way. 

Artists of all backgrounds have a place in the Truth and Reconciliation process but in whatever way we choose to give voice to all peoples, we also have a duty to act from a place of better understanding and knowledge.  

Lawrence Wiliford,
Tenor and co-Artistic Director, Canadian Art Song Project