Canada Scene: Ottawa’s Amanda Rheaume explores her Metis heritage in music

Amanda Rheaume. Photo: Jen Squires

Amanda Rheaume grew up in relative privilege in Barrhaven. The Ottawa-based singer-songwriter says that, however, that comfortable life left her feeling that she didn’t belong. So she turned to her Metis heritage.

“For me a lot of this has been (realized) in reflection.” She says her personal awakening happened when some “cousins of mine were becoming members of the Metis Nation of Ontario.”

Her grandfather Eugene Rheaume was a major figure in Metis politics. He helped found the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in 1971 and he  was the first elected Metis member of Parliament after Louis Riel.

“He was always a strong force in that way, but because of my age and where I was at as a young person, everything came into focus for me in a slower way.”

Now, she says, “I’m totally on this thing right now because I am writing a new album. There was always this  lack of belonging, lack of understanding or feeling like I belonged to something or that I knew who I was.

“I am still uncovering lots to do wth my Indigenous heritage. The other thing that happened with my grandpa was getting sick and passing away and for me he held all the stories of our family’s past.”

Her journey of discovery was aided by a family history book called Another Kind of Rainbow written by a great aunt.

“I caught a hunger and thirst for a feeling that I want to understand more” and explain more about the Metis people.

“Metis people have their whole own thing. They are not a watered-down Cree nation or a watered-down Ojibway nation.”

As a musician, her family stories have been captured in some of her songs. Her second album Keep A Fire was an early foray into telling the stories of her ancestors. The song Red Dress, off her fourth and most recent album, Holding Patterns, about the story of missing and murdered aboriginal women has become a powerful and popular anthem.

Rheaume will take part in a unique one-night performance of music by Indigenous women called Anishinabekwe. The concert, which is part of the Canada Scene festival, will also feature Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, Metis musician Sandy Scofield, singer-songwriter Iskwe and Metis artist Moe Clark. The show was organized by ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots.

“Indigenous women have had a much different experience and reaction to how Indigenous cultures have been treated. I think there is a real power there. Not only have women been slighted by our country but also by men. I think there is a lot of power and pain and message and resilience in Indigenous women.

“I think there is real strength in women’s voices and real strength in the women chosen for this show. We are all in very different genres and that’s really cool.”

Rheaume will only admit to singing Red Dress in the show. The rest of the performance will be a surprise.

“There will be some collaborations, I’m sure. It will be an authentic experience that won’t happen again.”

Rheaume knows that Indigenous peoples have been making art in this country for thousands of years. And she is celebrating that the work of Indigenous artists is gaining more recognition.

“What I choose to do is look at it in a positive way, in that, today more is being exposed, more stories are being told, good and bad.

“I don’t think this is just a trend. I think this is an awakening. Hopefully more and more people who were unaware of our stories” will hear the songs and stories.

For Rheaume, the 2017 JUNO win of a non-indigenous category by the Indigenous musician William Prince is a big deal. “It’s amazing and overdue. I want to say only good things about it. It’s time, it’s past time for all these things to be happening.” You can include A Tribe Called Red. The Ottawa-based trio won the Producer of the year JUNO in 2017.

It’s important, she believes, to heal the wounds in our society created by a history of colonialism.

“It’s become more important to bridge the gap. I didn’t grow up that way, I didn’t suffer discrimination, I didn’t suffer anything really culturally. I am trying to bridge the gap and tell the stories of my ancestors and not make it seem that I went through this.

“I never want to pretend I am something I am not. I don’t want to pretend that I lived that life and felt the pain that so many Indigenous people have felt, and still feel and go through every day. Reservations still don’t have clean drinking water and I can’t believe it.

“It is going to take time and it isn’t going to be perfect. I just hope that more and more is done.”

She is writing a new album that will continue her exploration of Indigenous issues and history.

“I’m expanding my thinking about culture and about belonging. There will be some politics in there for sure. But tt’s just really starting to take shape.

“I don’t feel in a rush to finish. I am definitely going to take my time, but, I would say the direction of the song Red Dress, feels where I’m at these days.”

She’s not touring much “I’m totally in writing mode. I can’t do both at same time I have learned.”

She will however head to Europe to cultivate a growing market for her music in Germany, Holland, France and the U.K.

“I’ve been going there for about three years now. and it’s definitely taking off. It’s a cool opportunity to teach people in other countries.”

With ShoShona Kish, Tanya Tagaq, Amanda Rheaume, Iskwe, Sandy Scofield and Moe Clark
Where: Babs Asper Theatre

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.