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Buffy Sainte-Marie blazed the trail for Aboriginal musicians

Canadian musical legend set to perform in Sudbury Aug. 11
Buffy Sainte-Marie performs in Sudbury Aug. 11. Supplied photo.

When Buffy Sainte-Marie listens to the new generation of emerging Canadian aboriginal musicians, she can't help but feel proud. After all, she forged the path for them.

“I'm thrilled,” said 75-year-old Sainte-Marie, who was born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskachewan, but raised by adoptive parents in Massachusetts. 

“Other artists are fun. They're not the competition, they're the reward.”

She mentions the folk-rock group Digging Roots, who she met recently at a music festival, as well as the electronic group A Tribe Called Red, which remixed her song “Working for the Government” in 2015.

“They can remix anything of mine they want to,” Sainte-Marie said, who pushed for the Junos to add an aboriginal album of the year category.

Sainte-Marie — who drops by Sudbury at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11 for a performance at Laurentian University's Fraser Auditorium — has been in the music business for more than 50 years.

She started out in the early 1960s in her early 20s, touring across North America, and spending a considerable amount of time in Toronto's coffeehouses.

Holding degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy, Sainte-Marie has always used her music as a teaching tool, often touching upon the injustices experienced by aboriginal people and the Vietnam War.

That drew the ire of the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations in the 1970s, who she said wrote letters asking radio stations not to air her music as part of an attack on the Native American movement.

“I always make the point, though, when people say 'Doesn't that make you hate the United States government?' it doesn't, because it had nothing to do with the United States government,” Sainte-Marie said.

“An administration is just a small handful of cronies who get elected and then do what it is that they want to do, which sometimes, in my case anyway, included shutting up a lot of people, including me.”

She still doesn't shy away from writing about aboriginal issues, hoping her music acts as a source of inspiration to the oppressed. 

Sainte-Marie performed last year as the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It's probably thanks to the 1970s blacklisting that Sainte-Marie is beloved by those now in their 30s and 40s.

Given not much was happening with her career then, she said yes when Sesame Street came knocking, becoming regular guest on the children's show over a five-year period from 1976 to 1981.

“We did breastfeeding, we did sibling rivalry, we did multicultural things, and we also did Native American programming,” Sainte-Marie said.

Now in her golden years but still going strong, Sainte-Marie is the winner of an Academy Award for “Up Where We Belong,” several Juno awards, holds a dozen honourary doctorates and is an officer of the Order of Canada.

Her music career is red hot, too, with Sainte-Marie taking home the Polaris Music Prize in 2015 for her album “Power in the Blood.”

She said she has no plans to hang up her microphone any time soon, keeping up a touring schedule that'd be gruelling to someone half her age. 

“I'm usually on the road for two to three weeks,” said Sainte-Marie, adding that she's careful to find time for R&R while on tour.

“Then I'll fly for a day and a half to get home. I'll have three days at home to do my laundry, kiss my cat, hug my boyfriend. Then I get back on the plane for another two and a half weeks.”

Sainte-Marie said her upcoming Sudbury performance will be a solo show. She said she'll also likely show a career retrospective slideshow, as well as videos of her songs more suited to a backup band.

Opening for the musical legend will be Sudbury musician Mimi O'Bonsawin. Tickets, which cost $58.76, are available through the Sudbury Theatre Centre box office. Visit


Heidi Ulrichsen

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