Some shows aim to entertain. Some are designed to engage. Walking Through the Fire: Sultans of String in support of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, presented during Secret Path Week on Sunday, October 22nd at 7pm at The Burlington Performing Arts Centre (‘BPAC’), is that rare live performance experience that will do both.
This year we bring the magic of collaboration to the stage with award-winning First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists from across Turtle Island joined by Billboard charting/6x CFMA winners Sultans of String, performing original Indigenous music along with beloved Tragically Hip covers like Fiddlers Green, Ahead By A Century, Courage and more! Walking Through the Fire is a musical multimedia experience unlike any other. From Métis fiddling to an East Coast Kitchen Party, rumba to rock, to the drumming of the Pacific Northwest, experience the beauty and diversity of music from Turtle Island with Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk of the Métis Fiddler Quartet, Ojibwe/Finnish Singer-Songwriter Marc Meriläinen (Nadjiwan), Coast Tsm’syen Singer-Songwriter Shannon Thunderbird, as well as virtual guests joining in on the big screen, including Elder and poet Dr. Duke Redbird, the Northern Cree pow wow group, Kendra Tagoona, Tracy Sarazin and Hamilton’s own Tom Wilson!
The Burlington Performing Arts Centre was the first performing arts centre in Canada to create a Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund Legacy Space inside a public venue. Legacy Spaces are safe, welcoming places where conversations and education about Indigenous history — and our collective journey towards reconciliation — are encouraged and supported. Learn more about Legacy Spaces at https://downiewenjack.ca/our-work/legacy-spaces-program/
Each year, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre programming reflects this commitment to reconciliation, particularly during Secret Path Week. This week is a national movement commemorating the legacies of Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack and takes place annually from October 17-22 marking the dates that Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack joined the spirit world. Now in its sixth year, this concert series provides a fundraising opportunity meant to aid in our collective reconciliation journey to promote awareness, education, and thoughtful action around Canada’s true history.
“When Gord Downie took time in his final days to shine a light on the need for reconciliation with Canada’s First Peoples, he left us all with an important job. The Burlington Performing Arts Centre was the first performing arts centre in Canada to install a Legacy Space in its venue, and BPAC is proud to produce and present LEGACY once again this year, supporting our partners at the Downie-Wenjack Fund and hosting an evening of storytelling and song that will stay with you, long after the curtain has closed,” said BPAC Executive Director Tammy Fox.
The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund is part of iconic Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie’s legacy and embodies his commitment to improving the lives of First Peoples. The goal of the fund is to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack’s residential school story, and to honour Gord Downie’s call to action to “do something.”
“Thank you very much for this special tribute for my brother Gord. I’m also sending my heartfelt thanks to all the artists for performing and to Kevin and Tammy Fox for pulling this wonderful evening together. The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund needs partners like these, who are finding their own way to ‘Do Something’ and in the right way,” said Mike Downie, Gord’s brother and co-founder of the Downie-Wenjack Fund.” My brother loved this country, but he knew it wasn’t perfect and that we had a lot of work ahead of us if we were going to repair the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Gord believed that Canada would remain an incomplete creation, a work in progress, until Indigenous lives and interests were fully respected and represented in all aspects of our country – in its governance, economy and culture. True reconciliation is going to require the effort and commitment of all Canadians to be successful and lasting – people like you. And so, we start. We start a long journey toward something better, toward a new understanding, a new opportunity, and a new country. Let’s imagine and then work towards a new Canada, one that Indigenous people will one day be proud to be a part of. We owe it to each other to try,” Mike Downie
Fire can be destructive, as we have seen with the unprecedented forest fires still burning in Canada. But what we see right afterward is interesting, as collaborating Indigenous art director Mark Rutledge explains, referencing the title and cover art of Walking Through the Fire. “You’ll see the burnt-out husks of trees and the ash and the charcoal on the landscape. But fireweed is the first plant after a forest fire that emerges, and you’ll see rivers and fields of magenta within the barren landscape, and those nutrients are going back into the soil for the next generation of trees and flowers and regrowth.”
There is fear instilled within the very notion of fire because it can be so destructive, not just to the landscape, but to the lives of people. But what lies beyond fear that holds people back from achieving what they want to achieve? “The other side of fear is growth and potential with collaboration between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” Mark continues. “When we drop the word reconciliation on people, there’s a large group of people who don’t understand what that means. And when you don’t understand something, you are fearful of it. But if we go through the same experience together, we walk through that fire together, and we come out together on the other end and have that unified experience together, that’s the power in this album.”
Together these artists are making a safe, creative space where new connections can be dreamed of – not in the Western way of thinking and problematizing – but instead a deeper sharing and understanding, with music being the common ground to help cultures connect and understand each other. “We are opening doors for each other, as Indigenous peoples, as settler peoples. This project is about creating connections and spaces to learn from each other” explains collaborator Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, violist with Métis Fiddler Quartet.
Nine-time Grammy-nominated Northern Cree and community organisers in Kettle and Stony Point welcomed Sultans of String to their annual powwow for one of these collaborations. Steve Wood, drummer and singer, explains, “When you’re collaborating with mainstream music, it shows that we can work together to bring out the very best in who we are as human beings, and we can bring out something very beautiful.”
A central theme running through Walking Through the Fire is the need for the whole truth of Residential Schools and the Indigenous experience to be told long before reconciliation can possibly take place. Grammy-nominated Elder and poet Dr. Duke Redbird, who in many ways provided the initial inspiration for this project, explains, “The place that we have to start is with truth. Reconciliation will come sometime way in the future, perhaps, but right now, truth is where we need to begin the journey with each other.”
Sultans violinist Chris McKhool, who was recently awarded the Dr. Duke Redbird Lifetime Achievement Award by Redbird and JAYU Arts for Human Rights for working to amplify these truths through collaborations, says, “This country has a history that has been ignored, distorted, twisted to suit colonialist goals of destroying a people. We are so fortunate for the opportunity to work with Indigenous artists, sharing their stories, their experiences, and their lives with us, so we can continue our work of learning about the history of residential schools, genocide, and intergenerational impacts of colonization. Music has a special capacity for healing, connecting, and expressing truth.”
The Honourable Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, said, “The very fact that you’re doing this tells me that you believe in the validity of our language, you believe in the validity of our art and our music, and that you want to help to bring it out. And that’s really what’s important: for people to have faith that we can do this.” Sinclair also spoke about the importance of using Indigenous languages so these do not become lost. The recording and concert feature lyrics in Dene, Inuktitut, Sm’algyax, Cree, and Michif.
Sultans of String is a fiercely independent band that has always tried to lift up those around them and has exposed many of their collaborators and special guests to new audiences at their shows, including at JUNOfest, NYC’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club, Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, and London’s Trafalgar Square. Led by Queen’s Diamond Jubilee recipient McKhool, they have collaborated with orchestras across North America and have played live on CBC’s Canada Live, BBC TV, Irish National Radio, and SiriusXM in Washington. They have recorded and performed with such diverse luminaries as Paddy Moloney & The Chieftains, Sweet Honey in The Rock, Richard Bona, Alex Cuba, Ruben Blades, Benoit Bourque, and Béla Fleck. Their work during the pandemic on The Refuge Project amplified the voices of new immigrants and refugees, earning them CFMAs and Best Musical Film at the Cannes World workshops and community engagement events. BPAC is also a rental facility, working with local community groups, promoters, dance competitions, corporate events and more.