Indigenous Classical Music Gathering’s Open Letter Calls for Change

Violin by Ri Butov (CC0C/Pixabay)

The Banff Center for Arts and Creativity is currently hosting the third edition of the Canadian Indigenous Classical Music Gathering (ICMG), led by professors Cris Derksen and Eliot Britton.

The first ICMG in 2019 gave birth to Indigenous musical sovereignty, a statement that appropriates Indigenous art – as opposed to “Indigenous-inspired” art by others. “We seek to end these musical works by strangers that shock audiences and re-traumatize our most painful experiences,” it read. “To non-Indigenous composers looking to tell ‘Indigenous-inspired’ works: be honest with yourself and ask why you feel compelled to tell this story and if you are the right person to do it.

The statement came after several high-profile cases of artists claiming questionable Indigenous ancestry in Canada.

Based on the deliberations of the last ICMG, held in December 2021, an open letter was posted on social media on August 9. Signed by participants, Andrew Balfour (Cree), Cris Derksen (Cree-Mennonite), Jeremy Dutcher (Wolastoq), Michelle Lafferty (Tłı̨chǫ Dene), Beverley McKiver (Anishinaabe), Melody McKiver (Anishinaabe-Lituanian-Scottish), Jessica McMann (Cree) and Sonny-Ray Day Rider (Blackfoot), the document calls for changes that will create more space in the classical music world for Indigenous artists and a brighter future for Indigenous youth, in particular.

There were several areas of concern that the letter writers discuss.

  • Collaborations: Collaborators are valued, but need to understand that working on Indigenous-funded projects means leaving key decisions and credit in the hands of Indigenous artists.
  • Credits: Aboriginal stories are best told by Aboriginal artists.

Many of the issues raised in the letter, although viewed through the prism of an Indigenous identity, also apply to many others on a broader basis. Essentially, they seek to break down the very real barriers that prevent participation in the world of classical music.

  • Disability and mental health issues: Recognition of the generational toll of residential schools and systemic oppression when it comes to Indigenous stories and artists.
  • Ageism: The reality is that many Indigenous artists begin their careers long after adulthood, not through an education system that begins in childhood, which negatively affects their career trajectories.
  • Classism: Expensive private lessons, inaccessible to the greatest number, remain the gateway to a career in classical music, not to mention the cost of the instruments.
  • Racism: The music community should reflect the community in which we all live.
  • Homophobia, transphobia and sexism: Recognition of the persistence of stereotypical expectations based on gender and colonialism.
  • Location: There should be as many opportunities for children in Tuktoyaktuk as there are in Toronto.

The open letter can be read in full here.

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