Indigenous Music Venues in Ontario: The Hey Day and New Dawn

Guest contributor Monica Mixemong describes the height of the Indigenous music scene in Southern Ontario and the hole left today as the heart of it all, the venues, shut down.

Much like life cycles – we are in the midst of another, a time when those paying attention will be rewarded with finding something great, a new music era – either you wake up or keep sleeping and miss the ride.

I love my Ontario backyard – from the ancient pre-historic wonders that are continue to fascinate scientists to the social unity that sees cultures from all over the world build lives and  nurture their new home.

Ontario sees festivals and celebrations in almost every urban centre daily. But what really gets me is the music. In the mid 90s, there was an Indigenous music explosion. The group Indigenous had just broken out of South Dakota and George Leach making his rounds across provincial borders from British Columbia to Quebec. Clubs across Ontario were booming with fresh talent, faces and sounds. Proving just how small we can make Turtle Island, these musicians would support one another, touring and collaborating.

One of my favourite examples  is Shoshona Kish and Raven Kanataka of Digging Roots. In the umpteen times I’ve seen them perform, I’ve watched them bring on stage everyone from Derek Miller to Melanie Storm, Keith Secola to  Stevie Salas for a 50 foot wide two-step, to the beat of Raven’s Steel guitar – something that gives the crowd an undeniable wave of positive energy that you can’t help but submit to and start stomping, often with the belly-laughs from our People. What an amazing feeling.

While the friendships and ties remain strong, the buildings that once housed these musical connections are becoming more and more scarce.

Jump ahead to 2011. I live, work and play in Toronto – what some would call the epi-centre of Canada. But I don’t restrict myself to these city limits and with age (albeit young age) have come to expand my new backyard to include Thunder Bay, Ottawa, North Bay, Sudbury, London and Kitchener, making great friends in all places with homes to welcome me in, food to soothe, couches to rest and stories to share.

In my years, I’ve watched venues change management and close-down. Clubs will go from a blues-bar to playing top 40 and karaoke on Friday nights to being shut down and replaced by high-end condos. Live music dies with mass gentrification, and we wait for it to re-bud from the underground up in other locations – the life cycle.

After the passing of legendary mainstream lap-guitarist Jeff Healey in 2008 (think of the best version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps – take that and eat it Beatles fans) his estate, after much contemplation, sold the downtown Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse so they could focus their energies on Daisy’s Eye Cancer Research Fund.

What now stands in its place is a sad boarded up building wedged beside the Diesel Playhouse and an overly pricey yet too-small for the average Torontonian condo sales office, in a neighbourhood that caters to the 25+ ambient music loving closet head-bangers. Similarly, on the other side of the street, The Bop has also closed it’s doors.

Healey’s was my place – I could go and mingle with everyone – the common thread linking us all being our love and connection to the music and the taste of some great Canadian beer that has become all too hard to find.

Midland, Orillia, Barrie, Sudbury and Thunder Bay have all lost some of the iconic bars/clubs that were the first stage for many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

Another great establishment that closed its doors in the last few years was not one of the most ritziest places I’ve ever been too, but that was overshadowed by the welcoming nature of the staff and the giant stage lining the back of the bar. Second Last Call was anything but the last place to go to during the Orillia Spring Blues Festival back in its glory days.

Bands from the area – like the Ronnie Douglas Blues Band based out of Orillia/Rama First Nation – were often found milling about the bar before the big jam to close the festival and often did call up other Indigenous musicians from the area for their first taste of the stage (Murray Sylvester – one of his first performances was here at 14, not exactly the legal drinking age in 1996).

Wild T & the Spirit and the Wayne Buttery Project were also a couple of great acts that have made the Second Last Call what it once was.

Now, I’m not saying these places were at the top of the heap, but they were on their game and set a precedent for other clubs to give their customers what they’re paying for – a great time listening to some live tunes in a place that doesn’t expect anything of you except to pick up your tabs – no dress codes, no pompous attitudes and screaming pre-teens waiting to dance to their favourite Bieber tune.

What’s left is a gap for that audience, a void in their heart where their favourite place once was, where they first saw Shakti Hayes slap bass or Crystal Shawanda belt out an ode to her father, that place where they ran into friends from James Bay or when they made the trek to the city to help Murray say goodbye to single-dom.

What I am noticing take shape in the absence of these great places is the heavy promotion of the OPEN MIC! (folk artists rejoice everywhere!) Indie music acts have dominated our iPods and webcasts over the past few years and businesses not wanting to be left out are opening up their doors to welcome in the new era. Everywhere from the old Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina in Toronto to the Pig’s Ear Tavern in Peterborough to the hunter-inspired Scuttlebutts in Thunder Bay – days of the week are dedicated to the budding musician looking for that first stage and doors open for you and I to support them.

Looking westward, I’m specifically intrigued by the Winnipeg music scene (you know, that little happenin’ city in the middle of the bush) and hope to spend a few weekends there possibly doing a little two-step with DJ NDN or being serenaded by Don Amero.

Always the optimist, I’m looking to the place of the Rising Sun for the artists and musicians to wake up my People once again and do a one-two – hoping that another great Indigenous music era is upon us, that new places are in hiding, waiting to be found again.


Monica Mixemong is a proud Anishinabe-Kwe from Chimnissing, a songwriter and life-long student she is a lover of all music and hopes to share her musical adventures with you while laughing at those little mishaps that make life fun. Follow her @Nimkii_Kwe.