Buffy Sainte-Marie remembers her role in the residential school revolution

Written by By Patrick Connolly, CNN |

Not long ago, it might have seemed that any woman of culture in her seventies is past the peak of their career. But that’s not the case with Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The Canadian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was born in Ottawa in 1936, in a working-class family that supported her own music and her mother’s cotton mill. As a child, Sainte-Marie was forced to attend a residential school, an institution for children in northern British Columbia that exists to this day.

‘Apathy and arrogance’

Aboriginal languages and cultures continue to fall victim to assimilation: 1 / 7

In the 1970s, after moving to Montreal, she found herself performing in “Harassing the Aboriginals” — a unruly political movement against assimilation that used the punk rock imagery of women punk bands as a symbol of the movement’s radicalism.

Her artfully spoken lyrics emerged from her experience in the wake of another 1960s landmark: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 2000 after residential schools were ordered to close.

Buffy Sainte-Marie in Toronto, 2007. Credit: Kerri-Ann Jones/WireImage

Establishing her name as a voice for indigenous people, Sainte-Marie is the patron saint of the Idle No More movement, an emerging community that has made further gains since the 2015 election of Indian Affairs Minister @amichaelTrudeau:

How to win the future

Her story is told on Tuesday, when Sainte-Marie takes the stage at Toronto’s Massey Hall for an evening of music, spoken word and original compositions, organized by Between Two Worlds, a program aiming to present women storytellers from the widest range of musical traditions, encouraging the relationship between culture and politics.

“I believe in cultural values, and as a music leader and an educator, I believe that there are so many more things to discover and access,” she says. “If you can find out more about them, you can hope to learn more about yourself.”

‘A stance that said ‘we’re in a lot of pain, but we can still see the opportunity to evolve’

A friend convinced Sainte-Marie to give her first national performance at Massey Hall in 2012, where she told the crowd: “I have never been ashamed to dance naked.”

That performance led to an interview for Montreal radio station CJAD, during which she revealed her connection to residential schools. Describing the fear she felt when her mother “put all the records away” and left the family home, Sainte-Marie said: “As I got older, I understood. I understood what it meant. I understood what it was like.”

“I understood better the need for education — for us in the family, for other indigenous people, the black community, the Irish or Italian — to educate ourselves and for us as a community to own ourselves.”

“I also understood the amazing resources that we’re working against. There’s no sign of them going away.”

Return to Jamaica

A relatively young woman, Sainte-Marie is considered by some to be the grandmother of Indigenous music. In 1999, the Ottawa Citizen called her “the Native Elvis,” in part for her propensity to perform in sensual outfits with similarly retro instruments.

Jamaica, 2016. Credit: Nikki Mills

Though she has often refused to speak about the residential schools experience — telling an interviewer that “they need to talk about it, but we need to talk about it, too” — she has spoken about her return to native lands in 2000, where she learned reggae.

“When I’m in Jamaica, I hear people talk all day about their pain and their loss and their diaspora, and I understood why they were so proud of their heritage and of being Jamaicans,” she says.

“With dancehall, there is an immense pride in being this strong, incredible village of the people. There’s an incredible love of the music itself. The lyrics, which are very, very strong, I learned about my own roots.”

The singer has made a career of navigating the shared roots of culture and politics in Northern Ontario, as a musician and an activist. But this performance is more than just celebratory, a chance to see a legendary artist at the pinnacle of her career. It’s

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