Understanding land, identity, and reconciliation through song
The first ever ArtsEverywhere Festival was held in Guelph on Jan. 19 to 22. Events ranged from conferences, to concerts, to lectures, to artistic performances.
On Jan. 20, northern Ontario group Midnight Shine performed as part of the Guelph Lecture “On Being Canadian.”
Midnight Shine is a four-piece rock-roots band from the James Bay Region. The band consists of Adrian Sutherland on lead vocals and guitar, George Gillies on drums and vocals, Stan Louttit on bass and vocals, and Zach Tomatuk on guitar and vocals.
The Ontarion sat down with Sutherland before the band’s performance to talk about life in the far north.
Midnight Shine was formed in 2011 when Sutherland was asked to open for Canadian rock group Trooper in Timmins under one condition: he needed to have a band.
“One thing we did know right away when we first played was that it felt good. It felt right,” recalled Sutherland.
In order to make concerts and events possible, Sutherland and his bandmates have had to coordinate travel and flights well in advance. Although all four band members live in the far north, getting together to practise involves much more than a road trip or a quick flight.
For a successful show, it routinely takes “Working with the organizers of the event, usually weeks ahead, sometimes even months,” said Sutherland, “trying to nail down who’s coming from what city and what community.”
Sutherland is from Attawapiskat First Nation, Gillies is from Fort Albany First Nation, and Louttit and Tomatuk are from Moose Factory First Nation. Altogether, there is a distance of over 200 kilometres, which makes practising difficult, let alone performing.
“[There was] very little time spent together for the creative process,” said Sutherland.
But the band didn’t let distance deter them. They travelled to Toronto to record both their albums.
“Going from black spruce trees to concrete, it’s always a bit of a shock,” Sutherland joked.
This year, the James Bay Winter Road is slated to open at the end of the month. The ice road connects the communities of Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, and Kashechewan to Moosonee.
Sutherland, who writes most of the band’s songs, uses obstacles like distance to fuel his music.
“A lot of the writing, for me, is about trying to get a message out,” said Sutherland. “Family, love, the land, the people. […] I think the challenges are similar for a lot of First Nations people in Canada, particularly in the far north. We have some really big challenges ahead of us in terms of social well-being.”
Sutherland also has cultural responsibilities in Attawapiskat, ranging from his role in seasonal hunts and activities, to traditional ceremonies and music, to regular help with chopping firewood, or hunting wild meat for elders and family members.
“I did sing for many years on the drum. I still sing, mostly on the hand drum though—just from time to time, because it’s hard on my vocals. I have to pick and choose what I can do,” explained Sutherland.
Sutherland also works as the chief executive officer for economic development in Attawapiskat.
“I work mostly in business development. I work closely with the mine and several partners,” he explained. “I enjoy the work—it’s very challenging.”
Many aspects of life in the far north are challenging, but Sutherland maintains that the toughest one for him is being First Nations. He admits it’s difficult to dismantle racism and stereotypes, within and outside his community.
“I’ve encountered racism my whole life—still in my job today,” said Sutherland. “Even with my own people, I’m not ‘Native’ enough—[that’s one] of those challenges I have to face in my own First Nation community. […] It doesn’t really bother me. It’s trying to find a way to get people to relate to what I’m trying to say.”
That’s where music comes in. For Sutherland, being able to share the complexities of his personal experience as a First Nations man in the far north is a means of reconciliation.
“We have a message and I didn’t know what that was when I first started,” said Sutherland. “People kept asking us that question: ‘What is your message?’ And the music I’ve been writing has been about reconciliation for a long, long time. It’s been about my identity and trying to find myself. It’s been about, yes, I’m partially assimilated, but there’s a big part of me that isn’t, that’s still free and wild. Maybe I don’t want to go to work and sit at a desk. Maybe I want to be on the land. There’s still a big part of me that isn’t fully assimilated into the rest of society.”
Questions of identity and assimilation are complicated even further when transgenerational trauma like residential school is involved. All four band members are children of residential school survivors.
“We’ve all had to go through trying to reconcile with what happened to our parents, because it affected us too,” said Sutherland.
A recurring topic within the ArtsEverywhere Festival has been the question of what reconciliation is and what it looks like.
“It’s about helping us find ourselves, giving us a reason to live,” said Sutherland. “Help us find our identity again. It’s heartbreaking to know that we’re at a point in time where people feel like their only option is to take their own lives, and some of these [people] are children. It’s affected our community too. There’s a big challenge ahead of us. We need to heal, and I think all Canadians need to be a part of that.”
If there’s anything to learn, it’s that reconciliation is complicated and ongoing. For Midnight Shine, communication through music opens up a world of possibilities.
Reconciliation may start with a land acknowledgement, but it doesn’t end there.
“Music has no boundaries; it can break down many barriers—especially cultural barriers,” said Sutherland. “It’s universal. It speaks to everybody. To me, that’s exciting, because people want to listen. I think it gives us a voice.”
Photos by Claire Wilcox/The Ontarion.