A look at Aboriginal Day Live 2015
Aboriginal celebration has travelled all over Canada
It took 14 years for Shane Ghostkeeper to think of himself as a minority.
In the northwestern Alberta town where he grew up, hotels are named after Vegas hot spots, summer nights never really get dark, and Métis, Mennonite and miscellaneous mingle in the playground.
But when Ghostkeeper moved from High Level to Edmonton to pursue his competitive hockey dream, he suddenly became the only aboriginal kid in school.
“The culture shock was a lot for me … I ended up being in five different high schools, moving around for hockey,” said Ghostkeeper, a Métis of Cree descent. “It took a toll on my self-confidence. The distance from Edmonton to High Level is vast. And I really felt that.”
Ghostkeeper struggled on, painfully shy and reclusive. When he was 16, his dad bought him a pawnshop guitar and a trainer amp as a way of drawing him out. The NHL dream petered out, but the determination Ghostkeeper learned on the ice didn’t. And at the Federation Cup, a Métis hockey tournament in Edmonton, he met Sarah Houle, a painter and writer originally from the Paddle Prairie Métis settlement, not far from High Level.
They fell in love and focused on music, with Ghostkeeper on his pawnshop guitar and Houle on a drum kit from a church in Paddle Prairie. Their sound was described by a former bandmate as “Hank Williams meets the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” They’re one of Alberta’s most idiosyncratic, experimental, soul-searching groups.
On Saturday, Ghostkeeper will return to Edmonton as one of eight headliners on the western stage for Aboriginal Day Live, playing at Louise McKinney Park beside the likes of George Canyon, Crystal Shawanda and blues guitarist Derek Miller. Veteran actors Michelle Thrush and Don Kelly will host.
Aboriginal Day Live has its origins in National Aboriginal Day, first proclaimed in 1996, one of hundreds of recommendations that emerged from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Designed to coincide with the summer solstice, it soon became just another long day. News outlets marked the day by focusing on chronic problems facing Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.
As Sky Bridges began working in broadcasting, he saw an opportunity to change the channel. He was marketing director for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network — formed in 1999 — when he pitched the idea of celebrating indigenous culture instead.
Since its 2006 inception, Aboriginal Day Live has become Canada’s largest such celebration. It’s APTN’s signature event, a two-stage, two-city broadcasting feat that brings headliners and up-and-comers together. Last year’s event reached 1.2 million people on air, with an estimated 10,000 people attending in Halifax. With the second biggest urban aboriginal population in Canada, Edmonton will likely draw more this year.
“After nine years, I have to say, we have changed the national dialogue,” says Bridges, now chief operating officer at APTN. “It truly celebrates the very best of our aboriginal musicians, but it also gives an opportunity, and a stage, for artists starting out.”
Bridges, like Ghostkeeper, found in music a way of escaping adolescent pain and isolation, and the chance to form new connections. He says he’s physical proof “that Cree and Blackfoot can get along,” a Métis kid from the north side of Winnipeg.
Bridges’s parents split when he was 12, and his mom moved the family to Marquette, a hamlet just northwest of Winnipeg. Other kids called him a city slicker. He learned about racism and gradually understood that he was Two-Spirited. Bridges escaped by listening to Top 40 and country music, with Cher and Donna Summer as personal favourites.
Working with APTN has also allowed Bridges to witness the wonders and pitfalls of choreographing a live broadcast that switches between two stages.
In 2012, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s closing number in Regina bumped up against closing fireworks. On Sainte-Marie’s suggestion, they just mashed the two together to spectacular effect.
When Billy Ray Cyrus performed last year in Winnipeg, Bridges arranged for an artist to paint a ceremonial drum to mark Cyrus’s aboriginal name, Chasing Hawk. When the creation was revealed, the name was wrong.
Initial shock turned to a powerful moment. The painter had had a dream about the name, and Cyrus, who claims Cherokee ancestry, later asked to change his name to fit the new drum.
Aboriginal Day Live has gone to Canada’s farthest-flung extremities. Bridges also highlights other moments, like the time nearly 100 mostly non-aboriginal people showed up for a sunrise ceremony in Halifax, or the first live high-definition broadcast from Iqaluit.
Edmonton was due to host the event, even if planning a concert around the FIFA Women’s World Cup isn’t ideal. The celebration is a fitting continuation of the emotional Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event held here last year. It’s a conversation APTN hopes to continue.
On the Winnipeg stage, Alberta country star Brett Kissel and Winnipeg Métis songwriter Don Amero will perform a song they co-wrote, Rebuild this Town, about connecting aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. It’s an idea that could have easily sprung from Louise McKinney Park, a space not far from the banks where early settlers of Fort Edmonton met local aboriginals.
Ghostkeeper’s return to Edmonton coincides with the 15 years since the two bandmates met here. They’ve been rookie upand-comers, plugged away to become critical darlings, and Polaris Prize nominees. Now they’re something resembling a family band, attempting to craft their own sound in a home studio.
Over the last couple of years, they’ve been on a semi-hiatus, quietly raising their son Vittal, nicknamed Vee, who just turned three.
Rock ‘n’ roll might be associated more with loud parties than quiet times, but Ghostkeeper said their parenting stint has been musically productive. They put Vee to bed, and they head to the basement studio, where they experiment with new recording gear and new sounds.
A new album is due in the fall, with five songs apiece from Ghostkeeper and Houle.
It’s a concept album about two characters, named Sheer Blouse and Buffalo and Ox, aboriginal activists who rise up against pressures of oil development in the muskeg of northwestern Alberta.
To fit with the new idea, the band has changed its formation, moving Sarah from the kit to vocals, along with vintage drum synthesizers. Houle says she’s writing her songs to be relatable to nonaboriginals, but also hopes to get “Métis women in their kitchens singing along.”
It’s a long haul to Paddle Prairie, High Level’s Sahara or Stardust hotels, too-long winters and muskeg-bred horseflies, but for Ghostkeeper, music has always been a way to bridge the gap.
“At every opportunity, on every story or every lyric, I find myself wanting to romanticize and glorify my people, my home, the great northern muskeg,” he said.
“It’s really special for Sarah and I to have recognition from the aboriginal community.”