Hi, I’m talking to you from James Bay, Ontario. I’m a Cree man and I’m a musician. I am a father, and grandfather now. I am doing a whole bunch of things and I’m really happy with my life at the moment, where I have again been able to exercise following my passion with music, and art. That’s what I do for a living at this time.
And what I wanted to talk about briefly was one of the major achievements that I was able to make in my life back in 1994.
I became the first Juno award winner for the best Aboriginal music in Canada. Why I was so honoured with that was because I was able to use our language, our Cree language, and be able to talk and sing about the culture of our people, the plight of our people, and be able to talk about a way to heal and deal with the issues that we have been getting all these years since the arrival of the Europeans. That whole scene of our lives have changed. You know, putting us on reservations and locking us up, and children being taken away to schools, and all that sort of stuff. We’re trying to look at it and deal with it, and I was able to do that through my music.
So back in 1994, that was when that first Juno award came out for the best Aboriginal music in Canada. At the time, I was working at ”Wawatay” Native Communications Society in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I was the Executive Director there and my job was to promote the language and the culture of our people to communicate. Since we had radio, television, newspaper, and a translation department and the whole thing to do that, to all our Ojibway, our Saulteaux and our Cree people in Northern Ontario. And I was always writing music.
I was writing music ever since I was about 12 years old or so. So I have been writing music and just making it up. I play guitar; I play banjo, violin, harmonica, the bass guitar and so on. I’ve always been right into music. So when I was working for Wawatay, that’s what we were doing on the radio and television programs. So being there gave me the opportunity to see exactly what was happening with all our Native communities across northern Ontario and it’s just the same all across Canada. The same situation of no jobs on the reserve, poor housing, all kinds of alcohol abuse, suicide problems and stuff like that. I really felt connected to my people working there at Wawatay.
And of course, I was writing songs. Then at one time in 1993, I asked my boss and Board of Directors if I could spend about $3000.00 to go to Nashville to record these songs that I’ve been writing about our people, and they agreed.
So I went to Nashville and came back with this album of 12 songs I have written. Most of the songs were in Cree. I have a song called “Wache Ay”. The song is about how we greet each other, instead of saying “Tansi” (that is how they might say it in Alberta, or however you say it). We say “Wache Ay” over here. So I record songs like that and then I recorded a song about Elders. I record songs about the healing of “Anishinabe Child” and all kinds of songs, everything to do with our people. I won the Juno award that year and I was really excited to try to be a part of the mainstream Canadian music industry. So submitting the Juno, I was really excited to do that.
Around February that year, that’s when we all got a call saying that I was one of the five nominees for that Juno award. Of course, Junos were being handed out in Toronto in March of that year. I have 8 kids and they all came down with me to Toronto. We all were at the awards show and then that year I was able to sing one of my songs called “The Elders” right on CBC, on the main television broadcast of the Juno award show. Shortly after I sang the song, they hustled me off to a part of the stage behind the curtains.
They read the nominee names, all the five nominee names that were nominated. Then they announced the winner and they said, “Wapistan, Lawrence Martin!,” and I was really excited. I didn’t know what to say. I slowly walked through the curtains, out on to the floor and there was this guy handing out the Juno awards, it was Robbie Robertson. And I thought, “Oh my God!” It made me even more nervous.
I looked out onto the floor where all the audience was and I could see all these big stars, all these big country, rock ‘n’ roll, all kinds of Canadian stars sitting in the front row and up the hall. Of course my lip was probably just flipping, I didn’t know what to say and I could hear my kids yelling away. They were sitting in the top balcony at back on there. They were all yelling away. And of course that made me feel emotional as well. And I thought I’m supposed to say something on accepting this award so I started speaking Cree, because again to me I wanted to make that political statement about our Cree people, our First Nations people being able to get up onto the stage, on the microphone to address the whole Canada on this music broadcast, throughout the nation.
And what I said was, I was so thankful I was able to use my language and my culture to get me to where I was there at that particular moment, on that stage accepting that award. And as I looked down below I saw Buffy Sainte Marie, she was one of the people pushing to have the Aboriginal award category, in the Junos. I thanked her of course and I thanked a whole bunch of other people. I forgot of course, you know, my manager’s ! Then of course they gave me the award. I made my little speech and I walked off. It was such a big mind-blowing event for me because nothing like that had ever happened. Even though I wanted it, I always fantasized, I’ve always dreamed of making it in the music industry, I never thought it would be like that.
It felt pretty good. I had on my moccasins, I had on my jeans and my ribbon shirt and it felt pretty good to portray that part of our First Nation’s peoples identity on some show like that.
So after the show there all kinds of interviews from all the media, all kinds of media conferences going on and I was always asked, “Why is there a Native category for music for a Juno award? Why can’t you be all the same as all the other Canadians?” And I said stuff like, “Well you know, when the Black people started out in the States they wanted to have their own music. They wanted to be included into the music industry and they weren’t allowed.” There is always somebody prejudiced that was sitting there deciding, “Well, this person is Black or too Brown or a different colour,” they wouldn’t be allowed to get in there.
So the Black people set up their own music award system in the States. That’s where Motown came from. From there they started flourishing and I think that’s what this category is doing for our Native people in Canada. It allowed us to focus on having a national award to be recognized and recognized is one of our Native musicians every year.
So my life went crazy after that. I toured Canada. I toured the States. I went to Australia; I went to Europe. I was really busy having a life of good things happening. Of course, good things in terms of the music part of it, and being able to be doing concerts all over Canada and the major cities. Then traveling abroad to other countries. So that was really good, I did that for some time.
And of course, I still had my job, all my family. Oh, and I was also the Mayor. I was the first Native Mayor in Ontario in the political world. So there I was running around this world doing the award thing, being the Executive in Communications, being the Mayor in this White town and then having a family. It’s very hard from that perspective but it was still those things that I did to achieve my dreams by being able to say, “I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to take a risk,” and just go and do things that I want to do. If I fail well I’ll learn something from it. But, I will keep on trying. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.
So after I left Wawatay Communications, I became a policeman for about three years. I didn’t like that too much because I was dealing with too many problems and I don’t like guns too much.Well, I don’t like shooting at people but I like to shoot at geese and to go hunting. Then I became the Grand Chief for my people in northern Ontario. The First elected Grand Chief of the Mushkeego people. So I did that for three years. Now I’m back to being a musician again, I’m writing songs, I have my own music listeners, I have an Engineering Degree from the College’s of Recording Engineers. I went to school for that to study music engineering and management. So now I’m doing that, getting all those computerized systems, Macintosh, Q-base programs. Recording other Native musicians, giving them the opportunity to record, something that I felt that needed to be put out there for our Native people.