Influential Indigenous Musicians in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Influential Indigenous Musicians in Canada

Music entertains and soothes, but it can also educate and challenge. These talented artists are among many popular Indigenous musicians in Canada. Their work celebrates Indigenous cultures and shines a light on important issues concerning Indigenous people in Canada.

1. Buffy Sainte-Marie (born 20 February 1941; Cree)

Saint-Marie’s first album, It’s My Way!, won Billboard magazine’s Best New Artist award in 1964. Folk singer Donavon covered the song Universal Soldier from the album and enjoyed an international hit. Saint-Marie subsequently released other albums and performed around the world. Music icons such as Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Glen Campbell recorded her songs. The song Up Where We Belong, written by Sainte-Marie, Jack Nitzsche, and Will Jennings, won an Academy Award in 1982.

In 1976, Saint-Marie recorded Starwalker, which blended Indigenous music and pop music in what she called “powwow rock.” It marked the beginning of her using music to celebrate Indigenous culture and augment her work in education and social activism.

2. Willie Dunn (born 14 August 1941; died 5 August 2013; Mi'kmaq)

Dunn performed at folk festivals in the 1960s and 1970s with his compositions speaking to Indigenous cultures and concerns. Dunn recorded six albums and wrote music for radio, television, and movies. His most popular song was I Pity the Country, a devastating portrait of colonialism and the price paid by Indigenous peoples.

In 1968, Dunn became the National Film Board’s first Indigenous director with the release of The Ballad of Crowfoot. He went on to direct two more NFB films: These Are My People and The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

3. Robbie Robertson (born 5 July 1943; Mohawk)

When still a teenager, Robertson toured as part of rock ‘n’ roll legend Ronnie Hawkins’ band, the Hawks. In 1968, the Hawks became The Band with Robertson as its lead guitarist and primary songwriter. He composed many hit songs including The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Up on Cripple Creek. Robertson also became a respected session guitarist and producer.

After The Band broke up in 1976, Robertson composed music for movies. His recordings, such as the album Music for the Native Americans and songs like Showdown at Big Sky and Somewhere Down the Crazy River explored Indigenous themes.

Robbie Robertson

4. Tom Jackson (born 27 October 1948; Métis)

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson’s rich baritone entertained audiences at coffee houses and festivals across Canada. His original songs explored a range of interests that included Indigenous concerns. His first of over a dozen successful country-rock albums, No Regrets, was released in 1994. Jackson also became a successful playwright and actor.

He used his music for social activism; bringing attention to hunger, poverty, and mental health. Beginning in 1988, his annual Huron Carole Benefit Concert Series Christmas Tour took artists from coast to coast to raise money for various issues. His Dreamcatcher Tour brought attention to suicides among Indigenous youth.

Tom Jackson

5. Susan Aglukark (born 27 October 1967; Inuk)

Aglukark’s 1995 album, This Child, contained the song, O Siem, which became the first international hit by an Inuk performer. She believed deeply in the effectiveness of the arts in promoting and protecting Indigenous cultures. Aglukark recorded a number of albums and enjoyed more hit songs that blended Indigenous and traditional pop themes, including Hina Na Ho.

Her political activism includes a public statement at a 2018 hearing for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls where Aglukark identified the man who sexually abused her as a child. She also was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Literacy Initiative and created the Arctic Rose Fund to combat hunger in northern communities. ( See also Country Food (Inuit Food) in Canada.)

Aglukark, Susan

6. Tanya Tagaq (born 5 May 1975; Inuk)

Tagaq is a residential school survivor who, in her early 20s, heard recordings of Inuit throat singing. Her debut album, Sinaa, released in 2005,blended throat singing with western electronic, rock, and punk music. The album’s success earned her a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award (now Indigenous Music Award) as the Best Female Artist.

Tagaq went on to release more successful albums, including Animism which won the Polaris Music Prize in 2014. She also performed across Canada and the United States, helped create documentary films, and published a novel, Split Tooth (2018). Her collaborations and work with musicians as diverse as Canadian rapper Shad, Icelandic singer-writer Björk, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, afforded her and Inuit music international recognition.

Tanya Tagaq Gillis

7. Jeremy Dutcher (born 8 November 1990; Wolastoqiyik, Tobique First Nation)

Dutcher is a composer, singer, and musicologist, dedicated to protecting and celebrating Wolastoqiyik music and its language. In 2018, his album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, blended old wax recordings of Wolastoqiyik music with Dutcher’s new compositions, all sung in the Wolastoqiyik language. It won the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award.

With only about 100 people still fluent in the Wolastoqiyik language, Dutcher believes it is crucial to use music once banned by the government to preserve memory and promote a message of what remains vital to the next generation. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)

8. Leela Gilday (born 1974; Dene)

Gilday grew up in Yellowknife and earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Alberta in 1997. Her compositions speak of her love of the north and its rugged environment and the resilience of those who call it home. For over 20 years she and her band have toured Canada and much of the world where audiences have become enthralled with her powerful voice and soulful performances. Her numerous albums blend Dene traditions and language with contemporary western pop and blues. In 2021, Gilday won a Juno award as Indigenous Artist of the Year.

9. JB the First Lady (Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa Webster) (born 12 March 1984; Nuxalk and Onondaga Nations)

Born in Moosejaw, but eventually settling in Vancouver, Webster adopted the stage name JB the First Lady. She attained national success as a hip-hop singer, beat-boxer, composer, spoken word artist, and dancer. For over a decade, her albums and powerful performances have presented lyrics and messages of unflinching honesty. They address intergenerational challenges caused by long-standing systemic racism and misogyny. She brings an authoritative female perspective to her music and social activism, including involvement in the Idle No More movement and emceeing rallies demanding justice for Indigenous peoples.

10. MJ Dandeneau (born 5 April 1980; Métis, French and Anishinaabe)

Marie-Josée Dandeneau is an accomplished bassist whose music is inspired by her heritage. She has performed all over the world and has been nationally recognized with awards from the Junos, Western Canadian Music, and Canadian Folk Music. In 2019, Dandeneau received the Indigenous Full Circle Award, one of the Manitoba Arts Council’s art prizes.

Dandeneau’s business, MJ Entertainment Canada Inc., has afforded her the ability to also work as a booking agent, producer, and composer. She has worked as a sound designer and composer for many musical theatre productions, including Bitter Girls, Torn Through Time, Tiny Treasure, Both Alike in Dignity!, and more. Dandeneau has worked with the National Film Board to create soundtracks and film scores.