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Conductor, John Kim Bell| Image source: NCCT Archives

John Kim Bell is a trailblazer, mover and a shaker. His ground-breaking 1992 ballet, In the Land of the Spirits, written by Miklos Massey, was the first all Indigenous cast to tour across Canada. Bell has also withstood the opposition of government agencies, including Indian Affairs, to create what many thought could not be done at that time- establishing an endowment fund for Indigenous post-secondary scholarships. Today, this work is done through the Indspire Awards, which awards thousands of dollars in scholarships to Indigenous students yearly.

With endowments coming in large part from the energy sector, also comes the question of corporate responsibility. A number of corporate donations come from the same resource extraction companies that many First Nations protest against. What is the argument for accepting money from resource extraction companies for an endowment fund for Indigenous people? In an interview with MUSKRAT Magazine earlier this year, John Kim Bell spoke candidly about his views on corporate responsibility, his experiences with founding Canadian Native Arts Foundation (CNAF) – Indspire’s predecessor, and where he views the scene is today for Indigenous artists.

MM: What was it like growing up in Ohio as an Aboriginal person and what is your connection to Canada and the arts?

JKB: I’m Mohawk from Kahnawake. When my parents divorced, my mother, who was American, took us back home to raise us in Columbus, Ohio. She moved back in with her parents, so we had a very good childhood. We weren’t wealthy by any means but we always had plenty to eat, were dressed well and had piano lessons. Along the way I demonstrated some talent for music and was taking piano lessons at the age of 10. At the age of eighteen by sheer accident, I was working on Broadway in New York City. I went to university of course, but there’s nothing that replaces the experience of going to NYC where some of the most talented people were. It taught me what the standards were in performing arts.

CBC made a documentary on my life as the first Aboriginal person to become a symphony conductor. When that aired, I started getting invitations to speak in our communities and political groups. Everyone was asking me for money or to raise money. So that’s what gave me the idea to start a foundation.

I had worked for the Toronto Symphony and they taught me how to raise funds. I thought that I could raise an endowment fund and that it would be very easy. When I was with the symphony every night, I would be going to dinner with a president of the bank or the president of another company. I thought that they were my pals, but the minute I started a foundation for the benefit of First Nations, the doors shut pretty quickly. I also tried to work with the government, but didn’t really get anywhere.

After about two years I spent about $30,000 of my own money writing proposals, incorporating a charity, forming a national board of directors, getting letters of support, trying to do some research to demonstrate the need for education, the value of arts and engaging young kids early. I didn’t really get anywhere. The government really jerked me around. Then on March 13th 1985, I incorporated.

Shania Twain
Shania Twain worked with John Kim Bell early in her career. | Image souce: CBC/Canadian Press

I went out on a limb and borrowed $100,000 personally. I hired Broadway musical star Bernadette Peters, the then unknown Shania Twain, Don Ross – a phenomenal Mi’kmaq guitarist – and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall to put on a fundraiser. It sold out, we made money, got great reviews and that launched the foundation. I produced those kinds of concerts across the country so that corporations in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton would start supporting what I was doing. They cost me almost and I would come away with $100,000 in profit. Then in 1988, people started requesting something more cultural, less pop art and more serious. I came up with the million dollar ballet, In The Land of the Spirit.

MM: What propelled you to start the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards and Foundation?

JKB: I was familiar with my own community, which isn’t as impoverished as others. Some of the northern reserves are pretty bad off. I had no idea about those because I hadn’t really visited any other reserve communities other than my own. But when I did go, what I saw shocked me. I was young, emotional, passionate and thought – this was terrible. I wanted to do something to make a contribution. Education, I thought, was key and I wanted to get up and do this. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would. In the first two or three years, I found so much racism in the corporations and government in just saying no. This made me mad. I have never felt racism before because I was the celebrated assimilated guy.

When I got done with the tour, I said to myself I can’t put on a classical ballet every year. It’s too hard to raise this kind of money, bring dancers in, and hold them together for six weeks from all over North America. Then I came up with the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I thought, we don’t really talk on a national scale; we don’t have a national data bank; or a national moccasin telegraph that’s serious; and mainstream Canadians think very poorly of us. They don’t know that we are capable and talented people – in sports, arts, business, health, and medicine.

I got lots of opposition from Indian Affairs. When I did go to the CBC they initially said no. Late one night I was watching the CRTC hearing. CBC was getting hammered for not ever producing Aboriginal programming, so the CRTC commissioner said: You’re on probation. You either spend so many dollars or hours on Aboriginal programming- If you don’t do that- we’re not going to renew your license. I went in two to three days later and said – I want to produce the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. They said – we don’t have any money. So I told them – I’ll raise all of the money. You give me the airwaves, editing services, animation, and an office. Then we had a deal. In the first couple of years we had an audience reach of two million viewers. The CBC was absolutely shocked. A year later I was on the board of directors for eleven years. Culturally I think that advanced us; unified us; it brought new awareness to mainstream Canada. I think it brought awareness and unity in our own collective community.

Underwater world set design for the National Aboriginal Achievement awards in Vancouver, 2000
Underwater world set design for the National Aboriginal Achievement awards in Vancouver, 2000 | Image Source: John Kim Bell

MM: What’s the biggest lesson you have learned over your philanthropic career?

JKB: One of the things I learned was that if you have a dream, it is possible to achieve it. Everything I wanted to do, nobody believed in me. I wasn’t just a dreamer; I worked seven days a week and was very realistic about what I wanted to do. When I decided I wanted to start producing concerts, I called up a well-known producer and said tell me everything that I have to do to be a good producer. I just started talking to everybody who was an expert. I didn’t have the money to hire others to do it for me and I didn’t want them to do it for me. I wanted to learn myself. I learned through hard work and street smarts how to put on these big events.

So the message is if you have a dream, it is possible, even though you’re the only one who believes in it. You just have to suffer for it. You have to have talent. You have to have brains. Most people will not work that hard to achieve their dream. They want it, but it’s not worth the work. That’s what it’s all about, hard work, taking a risk and not being afraid.

MM: How do the Indspire Awards balance corporate responsibility while also accepting corporate donations from big extraction companies? Is there a tension when these corporations have bad track records working in some Indigenous communities while at the same time donating to others?

JKB: I don’t see this as an issue. This was an issue I faced because Indspire had been raising corporate money for 30 years now. When I left them, I left them with $20 million in endowment funds. People would say ‘we can’t invest in oil companies; we can’t invest in companies that might be polluting’- that was followed by people asking; ‘how do you take money of these extraction companies?’ I find it a bit of a shallow argument. When we get our money from Indian Affairs every year, where does that money come from? The money comes from the corporate tax base. What is our main industry in Canada? It’s resources, extraction, mining, oil and gas. The corporations pay corporate taxes. When each First Nation gets a check every year, it comes from our tax revenue based either directly from the corporations or the individuals who work for those extraction companies. There is no dirty money. In our country, everybody uses metal of every kind. You have jewellery, you have a computer, your television, the chair you sit on has a metal brace. Everybody uses metal everywhere, so we can’t say we are against mining and mineral extraction. We as First Nations use it. We use oil. We act like we don’t consume or are apart of the degradation, but we are.

What we need to do as a country is try to maximize the protection of the environment. We need to increase the rigor and discipline on our oil, mining and pipeline companies. I’m not against development. I’m against irresponsible development. I’m against those people who want to get away with saving money and doing things in a very inferior way that do contribute to environmental degradation. That’s what we have to stop.

Another set design for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in 1997
Another set design for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in 1997 | Image source: John Kim Bell

MM: Through the span of your career, in what ways have you witnessed Indigenous arts evolve in Canada?

JKB: In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Canada Council was embarrassed into creating funding specifically for Aboriginal artists. I and a few others embarrassed them along the way, so that they had to do it. The foundation’s (CNAF) success really got them noticing that they should get on board. So that was one big step.

We have very few successes. You’ve got Santee Smith, who has managed to operate a small dance company for a long time and Sandra Laronde with Red Sky Performance. There’s not too many. In the states they had the American Indian Dance Theatre, which was popular for seven to eight years. They were a commercial theatre and were selling tickets like a Broadway show. I don’t think we have that.

No one has done anything bigger than In the Land of the Spirits. No one has even tried to put on a big production, something that would stun the public and impress the white people. I think that’s a failing. The question is how come we don’t have more of this? Apart from Kent Monkman and Robert Davidson, a great Haida carver who has been a phenomenal world-class presence, I don’t really see stuff happening. There’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done.

MM: What inspires you today?

JKB: I have an 11 year old son, Pearson. He’s handsome, smart, a talented pianist and guitarist and he’s in an advanced math class. In grade 6, he’s doing grade 10 math. He inspires me because I look at what I’ve done and ask where’s the next John Kim Bell? I don’t care what people think of me saying that. Where’s the next person who is a game changer? I say to myself here’s the hope for the future.

I work on reserves every week, either in mining or in renewable energy practice. I see poverty. I see kids who aren’t being cared for and aren’t well fed. It’s very sad. What’s our future when we are being suppressed this much? Then I look at Pearson and say; here’s a kid who might be able to make a difference. There is hope. I just see hope in my son. When I think of our conditions as First Nations, I don’t have that much hope. I’m not being negative. I say where’s the leadership? Where’s the new ideas; the great ideas?

John Kim Bell
John Kim Bell| Image Source: RAS Creative

John Kim Bell Bio

Mr. Bell is the well-known internationally recognized cultural figure and entrepreneur whose distinguished first career was as a symphonic conductor and composer of film and television. He is the Founder and original CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (now known as Indspire) and National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (now known as the Indspire Awards) and built the Foundation and Awards into an unprecedented charitable organization serving the Aboriginal community. In 2008, Mr. Bell acquired the company from Mr. Bernard to focus the company on resource development activities between developers and First Nations and Métis communities.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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