Life was inextricably transformed for Stevens and his unlikely audience, touching off a 13-year mission packed with lessons, insights and hope.
by Bruce Mason
• Nothing could have prepared Mike Stevens – or almost anyone else – for Sheshatshiu (pop. 1,500), the largest Innu community in Labrador. Innu means “human being,” although they have been treated as anything but. These unique, non-status Aboriginals – political orphans – are among the last of First Nations on the continent to give up the hunt and their ancient, nomadic life. The disastrous trade-off, forced relocation and impossible transition plunged them into the depths of abject poverty and rampant alcoholism. They were stripped bare of their pride, independence and culture, with the caribou herds – their prime source of food and clothing – ravaged by mining, hydroelectric dams and ubiquitous low-flying NATO training planes.
In 2000, Stevens was en route on a tour to entertain peacekeepers in Bosnia with stopovers in remote Goose Bay, Labrador and Alert on Ellesmere Island. At the first appearance in Goose Bay, he played a song for troubled youth in nearby Sheshatshiu, whose crisis had surfaced in international news flashes. The music dedication “touched a raw nerve’” in the silent, white audience. After the performance, someone in the audience offered him a ride – if he could ‘sneak away’ – to Sheshatshiu, the village with the country’s highest suicide rate.
“Driving along the gravel road was like slipping off the edge of Canada into a third-world parallel universe,” says Stevens. “There were crosses – too many crosses – some with kids’ toys attached, marking places where people had died, too often at their own hands. Arriving in the village, I saw mounds of bulldozed houses and more memorials where kids had set themselves ablaze, sniffing gas.
“A piss-stained mattress covered in tarps was where they looked after each other, rather than sleep six to a bed in buildings not much bigger than garden sheds, housing as many as 12 people. The ‘houses’ have taps and toilets, but no running water. It’s cold, often way below zero and I remember, in some places, my feet breaking through crusts of snow into knee-deep sewage, not wanting to touch my face, keeping my hands away from my eyes. It was dangerous. There was TB, Hep A and seriously ill people everywhere. With virtually no way to make a living, junk food was all that was affordable.
“No one should have to live in such conditions. Kids were hurting, anaesthetizing themselves from pain, constant boredom and loneliness that we know so little about and are unable to really feel. But I also played in the school where beautiful, incredible kids, super smart and artistic, loved music. They’re a tremendous untapped resource with lots to say and teach to the rest of us as they find their voices.”
Fear is just one of the conflicting emotions Mike vividly recalls from his first face-to-face encounter with Indigenous youth in Sheshatshiu. They were congregated around an open fire, inhaling gas in deep, round-the-clock gulps from plastic garbage bags, gripped tightly in fists to their faces.
“I was scared, really scared and nervous,” he remembers the pivotal moment. “They were kids, but could have been thugs holding gasoline near fire. They might have said ‘screw off’ to a goofy looking white stranger who had no business being there, driven by a need for a connection and engagement to begin to understand and maybe even help.”
So the virtuoso harmonica player did what he does best – play music. During the first bars of Amazing Grace, some of the curious sniffers stopped their incessant inhaling to start a conversation. Thankfully, snippets of it were captured on video, the centrepiece of a compelling documentary – A Walk in My Dream – that deserves and demands the widest possible audience and action. Experience the incident at www.mikestevensmusic.com/artscan and share the link.
Life was inextricably transformed for Stevens and his unlikely audience, touching off a 13-year mission packed with lessons, insights and hope for a Canada that in his words has “screwed up.”
“Everything changed in a heartbeat, right down to the level of my DNA, especially my reason for playing music,” Mike reports. “It was raw, real. I had a pounding migraine. My face burned from the fumes and I haven’t slept the same way since. Something worked. Music briefly opened the doors on their chests. I knew then that I would never again play just to entertain, to make people feel good.”
In a nanosecond his meteoric music career spun from its plotted trajectory and high-powered orbit.
Video and reports of his adventure had been sent south to mainstream media outlets. When he touched down in Alert, CBC Radio’s As It Happens requested a national phone interview. Stevens says, “It was like scraping open a recent wound. I was still shook up and ranted for 10 minutes that something had to be done, asking people to donate instruments that I would personally pick up for the school.”
Arriving in Bosnia and contacting home in Sarnia, Ontario, his wife informed him that hundreds of emails had been received, offering instruments. They would fill his house and a transport truck and Mike would – out of his own pocket – eventually hand out thousands of harmonicas.
He says, “I play emotions rather than notes and calculated lines. Percussively. Aggressively. It’s the way I’m built. I’ve learned that my body, not the harmonica, is the instrument. That’s one reason why musicians sound so different. I’ve had seven hernias, pushed my intestines through my stomach wall that many times because I use my mouth, throat and stomach to resonate overtones of notes. And I’ve totally destroyed that little valve that keeps food down, by using it for vibrato, bent it right back so if you tipped me upside down everything would flow out.”
As a teenager, Stevens had qualified for the first Ironman in Hawaii, but dropped out because of injuries sustained during intense training. Turning to the tiny, unglamorous instrument he had toyed with as a child, driven to be the best he could be, he practised 12 hours a day in his parents’ home in Sarnia, Ontario, absorbing soul and blues music drifting up from Detroit’s Motown and Chicago’s Southside.
His unique career path partly focused on bluegrass, duplicating the intricate, quick-paced patterns of the banjo and fiddle, catching the ear and attention of legendary masters of the genre. He was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry more than 300 times, unprecedented for a harmonica player. For years – with his wife Jane and son Colin – he left Sarnia on Thursday afternoons for Nashville to work the Opry, then drove all night to play shows in four different states, racing back each Monday to his day job. His trusty Volvo logged 760,000 km.
Stevens pioneered looping, a technique of adding to tracks of music in live performance, a process that mirrors his life experience. “Things happen that I don’t understand until a circle is completed and I figure it out,” he explains.
More instruments appeared after his initial visit to Sheshatshiu, requiring more trucks. And he discovered many other remote communities in desperate need. He was “going broke, getting depressed and not playing music” while staging workshops and creating recording studios to capture elders’ stories as well as newly found voices and original compositions.
Realizing he was a musician and not an organizer, he founded the volunteer ArtsCan Circle in 2002. Some 70 musicians have held interactive workshops with youth-at-risk in places such as Mishkeegogamang, Pikangikum, Wabaseemoong and Natuashish. The mission is to promote self-esteem and self-expression, honour traditional culture and language, share and teach skills in the arts, facilitate creativity and positive recognition and bear witness and bring voice to the struggle and achievement of Indigenous youth and their communities.
“Arts Can is working, absolutely,” reports Stevens. “I’ve made a life-long commitment to eight communities to go back and to go back and to go back. That’s essential to earning their trust. We don’t want to be yet another program or handout, a template conjured up in a distant boardroom somewhere and thrown at them in a photo op and news flash before blowing out again and moving on to something else.
“These people are dealing with heavy issues we’ve created through colonialism and genocide. We need to show them we care where they are and that what they are going through is real and tough. It’s not something we need to fix or throw more money at. The elders know what has to be done. We have to shut up and listen. There’s a huge payoff. For example, I’ve learned to honour silence in conversation rather than fill space.”
Canada has little choice but to get its act together. Aboriginal people are the fastest growing segment of the population and a wasted, precious resource. In Sheshatshiu, 50 percent of the community is under the age of 18. There, the Innu have recently taken control and created a spectacular high tech K-12 facility built on the educational model that works for them and is the heart of the community.
“If there’s one thing I would like everyone who reads this to know – and do – it’s this: When you see an Aboriginal person, on the street, or wherever, say ‘Hello!’ It’s that simple. That’s where it starts. By listening. Building respectful relationships. Even if it means stepping outside your comfort zone,” advises Mike Stevens.
Mike Stevens is a modest family man with immense talent, unbridled honesty and passion. He continues to earn an international reputation as one of the most innovative, versatile, soulful and selfless musicians on the planet. Mike has lost track of the number of albums he has recorded; 10 are available on his website (www.mikestevensmusic.com). A new recording with Okaidja Afroso – Ghana wooden xylophone (gyil) virtuoso – will be out in December (Borealis records).
Mike volunteers with the Peter Gzowksi Invitational for Literacy (www.pgicanada.ca/) and has performed – and given away harmonicas – in every province and territory in Canada. “Peter was someone who got it,” Mike says. “He understood what people need to find their voice and is remembered as a friend, not a celebrity. And he knew firsthand that the North is the heart and soul of Canada.”
Mike is the founder of ArtsCan Circle, a non-profit organization that brings artists and indigenous Canadian youth to‑gether in creative expression. ArtsCan now includes workshops in theatre, visual arts, storytelling and more. To donate an instrument, stage a benefit and help grow this highly successful program, visit www.artscancircle.ca; $25 will provide paintbrushes and canvas to youth at risk. There are many more options available, including donating air miles.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. email@example.com