A simple moment during National Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2016 helped Darryl Dozlaw encapsulate his own journey toward reconciliation through song.
Dozlaw, a teacher at Caroline Robins Community School, was observing the celebration when a young Indigenous child sat down next to him.
"To this child I was not a non-Indigenous person who had grown up in the local echo of a residential school, nor were my forefathers the bad guys in her forefathers' stories," he said. "To this little one, I was a person sitting in the sun, listening to the music and watching the dancers dance and there was room for us both. The impact of this perfect, innocent grace extended so generously to me was the realization that reconciliation has a chance. It became the final line of the song I was writing."
That song is It Is Ours, his response to the reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report. Based on personal experience, it's the story of a Canadian settler who, after growing up in a town that was the location of a residential school, comes to understand where his privilege has come from and who has paid for it.
"It challenges listeners to work through the diﬃcult reality that, while the Canadian residential schools' tragedy may not feel like the personal story of many, it is the collective story of all," Dozlaw said.
Although the song had been performed live in several forms during the past two years, including an initial 2017 performance with the Saskatoon Public Schools Indigenous Ensemble, it was first available for download on June 21, National Indigenous Day. It was released as part of a thematic, three-song EP pressed on orange vinyl on Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30, and celebrated with a performance during the school division's Welcome Back Wacipi Pow Wow. Thanks to the support of various partners, all of the proceeds from the sale of the EP will benefit the Indigenous Ensemble.
"The real honour came following the song when all the residential school survivors present were invited to gather in the centre for an inter-tribal dance with their friends and families," Dozlaw said of the Sept. 30 pow wow. "From the crowd of about 2,000 that I had just sung to over 100 people — the young, the old, the very old and the very young — moved to the space and danced in celebration. It was a powerful reminder to me that at any mixed or Indigenous gathering there are people who carry the residential schools' story as their own. Very humbling for me."
Dozlaw worked with Donny Speidel, the cultural resource liaison with Saskatoon Pubic Schools, during the writing of the song. A collaboration with Darrell Paskimin, an accomplished Indigenous flute player, powwow singer and son of a residential schools' survivor, strengthened the song's presentation during many public performances during the past few years.
"Darrell's presence in performance not only enhanced the reconciliatory character of the lyrics, but also created a rich sonic picture of a musical treaty for those listening. We spoke many times together of a shared desire to record this work so that its reach and its impact would extend beyond our ability to present it live," Dozlaw said.
Dozlaw, accompanied by a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians, went into the studio at the Recording Arts Institute of Saskatoon (RAIS) in November 2018. The time and talents of the musicians was donated to support the project as was the studio time and the work of recording engineer Ryan Andersen. Students at RAIS mixed the session as part of their learning and Dozlaw worked with student Jazmyn Durocher to create the song's final mix. The result was the nine-and-a-half minute song that combines Dozlaw's music and lyrics with powwow drum section and Indigenous flute.
"What I envisioned was a fairly progressive, folk rock/protest singer-songwriter piece with a powwow section to represent the inter-tribal dance that would often take place in live Ensemble performances of the song," he said.
"For the powwow section, it was very clear in discussions with Indigenous Ensemble mentors that performing a traditional powwow song would be inappropriate. This music is collectively owned and for some to hear a traditional song on a recording such as this could be oﬀensive. Darrell agreed with this thinking and decided to lend a composition of his own to the project because he believed in the work we were seeking to do together."
The vinyl EP — which includes the songs Tears On My Forehead along with Paskimin's powwow composition Onimito (Plains Cree for dancer) — is available at The Better Good, Glitch Novelties, the Vinyl Exchange and McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon. The EP is available on iTunes and the single It is Ours is online for streaming and download through darryldozlaw.bandcamp.com as well as Apple, Spotify, Google Play and other services. The full lyrics for It is Ours along with album credits are available at the Bandcamp site.
"While the record itself is an object, it probably represents something that I've been chasing my whole life: a sense of relevance," Dozlaw said. "The fact that something I've made — in this case songs written and performed in obedience to a creative impulse from Creator, in collaboration with so many others in response to the stories of so many more — has already resonated with people who, prior to engaging with this work, were complete strangers to me is incredibly satisfying."