Skip to main content

Cree composer Balfour helps Edmonton choir tell stories of Indigenous soldiers

A story of Indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada in the First World War, and then were denied rights upon returning home, was told Sunday evening by a local choir and renowned Cree composer. 

Andrew Balfour's "Notinikew: Going to War" was performed on stage for just the second time by Edmonton's Chronos Vocal Ensemble at the McDougall United Church. 

The Canadian government estimates about 4,000 Indigenous people served in the Canadian forces during the First World War; a more precise number is unavailable because only those with Indian Status were recorded. About 300 lost their lives in conflict. Upon returning home, many did not receive the same benefits and support from the federal government. 

"Notinikiew" was performed for the first time in 2018 in Winnipeg – where Balfour is based and leads the Dead of Winter ensemble – and then recorded and performed in different capacities during the pandemic. 

Sunday's performance was the culmination of a year's worth of work with Balfour, according to Chronos artistic director Jordan Van Biert. 

He told CTV News Edmonton choirs have a role in broadening the kinds of stories told to audiences and working with collaborators like Balfour to do that. 

"Our background is western choral music which is predominantly Eurocentric, and so when we look at a piece like this, we have a composer who is a bridge between different kinds of cultural traditions," he said. 

"We all feel we've grown this week. I was commenting this morning that I don't think I've learned as many new things in the space of a couple of weeks in quite some time. There have been some very very deep and powerful moments."

Balfour told the audience at the start of the concert he saw it as reconciliatory action. 

"I really feel that the spirit of reconciliation, if you want to use that word, is the spirit of collaboration and respect and often a safe platform to be able to tell our stories," he said. 

"We're going very deep into a very deep, complex, tragic issue. But I also feel safe in this place because I do feel the importance of storytelling is a safe place. And we haven't been safe – my people haven't been safe – for a long, long time. So I feel we are being able to build up the bridges to being safe again. I do it through choral music." 

The concert consisted of songs in both Cree and English, as well as traditional drumming and a blessing. Balfour narrated the performance. Singer and drummer Ryan Arcand, cellist Leanne Zacharias, tenor soloist Nolah Kehler, and bassist Paul Grindlay were guest performers. 

With files from CTV Edmonton's Sean McClune Top Stories

Stay Connected