A woman uses music to teach her children how to protect themselves on the Ontario reserve where she lives

Karen Cudmore and the highland flute have played during the provincial run-offs in Indigenous elections, sometimes in as few as 20 minutes, as a way to express pride and need to survive. But its near-omnipresence in those national elections last year, where the official day of arts was Sept. 20, didn’t help.

According to Catherine Howard, the director of public engagement and content at the Canada Council for the Arts, who was at the forefront of the Arts for Youth Initiative, the idea was launched in 2014 to honor the tradition of Aboriginal Peoples learning craft, participating in Indigenous ceremonies and using the arts.

In 2016, Ms. Cudmore said she had to find a way to bring drumming and the Highland flute, a type of Canadian shaker, to her children on their Indigenous reserve.

“We didn’t have a home to do it. We couldn’t bring it out in the community,” she said.

So Cudmore registered a venue, and started teaching about five children to drum and play the flute, which was easier for her to teach, and free to her with a native band. Cudmore, who like many Ottawa-area Indigenous people is from the Carp First Nation, said it was important for her to teach her children to learn and express themselves in a way they can relate to.

“I didn’t teach my kids anything but my culture. I didn’t teach them language, that’s not important. I didn’t teach them about Indigenous Affairs. It was about teaching them to survive,” she said.

But giving them the opportunity to express themselves through music and another Indigenous art form is important to her.

“Because I’m part of a community, I feel like I’m accountable, so the more I can keep it alive, in our community, is important to me,” she said.

The wooden flute is not as easy to make as other types of musical instruments, but with Cudmore’s help, others made it and sold it to buy supplies for Cudmore’s kids. Howard said the sales are critical for artists on First Nations reserves and are also tied to the Canada Council’s goal to make the arts more accessible to youth.

This year, after Cudmore was invited to the Canada Council’s Arts for Youth Summit in Montreal last May, the council was able to support her family to grow the Highland flute on their reserve, and invited her to attend. It was there that she encountered Lori Robertson, executive director of the Carp Music Collective, a nonprofit that sells rare recordings and other cultural artifacts.

Both Cudmore and Robertson felt the Highland flute was an important symbol for First Nations people, but it hadn’t been imported to Carp or other reserves in Ontario, where everything from organic produce to buffalo hides can be purchased.

The Ontario government, however, has been making some progress in this area. A bill proposed this spring from the Liberal government aims to grant tax relief to First Nations businesses to help them become more business-friendly, for example.

“My energy is focused on the Highland flute. We want to bring this into the limelight and bring attention to it,” Robertson said.

Cudmore has already taken courses on making the flute to improve her skills. She is attending a different festival each week in Ontario and Quebec to teach people about the Highland flute, which she said people would likely never learn of otherwise.

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