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Sarnia musician honoured for work with northern kids

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Shortly after receiving a Meritorious Service Medal at Rideau Hall last month, Sarnia’s Mike Stevens was told the governor general’s wife wanted to meet him.

“(Sharon Johnston) wanted to know more about ArtsCan and how it started,” said the celebrated harmonica player.  “Then, the greatest thing happened.  She offered to start an instrument drive at Rideau Hall.

“It turned out a lot of folks working at Rideau Hall know about ArtsCan. It made me feel really proud.”

ArtsCan Circle is a not-for-profit Stevens founded 16 years ago to foster self-esteem among indigenous youth in isolated northern communities. Teaching them to play instruments and exploring other art forms invites the kids to make new connections and healthier choices.

“It’s not just about teaching them to play. It’s way bigger than that,” Stevens explained. “It’s about building relationships and teaching kids that who they are and where they come from are important.”

Stevens, who travels the world as a professional musician, spends a big portion of his time volunteering for ArtsCan, which now works on a continual basis with 10 indigenous communities.

On top of that, Stevens has visited 15 other isolated First Nations to engage youth in his workshops.

Most recently, ArtsCan was contacted by the band council at Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario where 28 residents attempted suicide in March. An ArtsCan team was sent immediately.

“We sent a record producer and recording engineer with some gear and they met with the youth,” Stevens said. “They recorded some songs together and now the team is gathering instruments for a lending library.”

Stevens, 58, was one of 35 Canadians awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by Governor General David Johnston on June 23 for his work with ArtsCan Circle.

The awards were established in 1991 to recognize those who perform exceptional deeds or activities that bring honour to their community or country.

“It was a really nice way to be recognized,” he said. “We run a very grassroots organization that is self-funded with benefit concerts and bake sales.

“It’s great to know people respect what we do.”

Stevens has recruited teams of musicians, art therapists, teachers and producers to work with youth in remote places and set up recording studios. He’d like to see Podcasts in the future to showcase the kids’ music. He’d also like to run comedy workshops.

Stevens is a former Chemical Valley worker who honed a career playing bluegrass music. He has appeared more than 300 times at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

As yet, he has no concerts scheduled for Sarnia this year. Instead, he is travelling to Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Argentina and the South Pole to work and volunteer his time for ArtsCan Circle.

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