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McMurray Musings - Not Your Usual Suspects...Sonia Burke-Smith & Bill Bertschy

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The Journey of The Drum

When dozens of drummers walked to the stage at the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Wood Buffalo Western Canada Summer Games they stole the show with their powerful performance of Aboriginal drumming – but only a few in attendance at the ceremonies knew the story and the people behind the electrifying performance that opened the ceremonies that evening.

Sonia Burke-Smith and Bill Bertschy had a dream. It was to incorporate traditional Aboriginal drumming in the ceremonies to reflect the strong First Nations history of this region. Like many dreams, though, it did not come to reality easily.

“The idea came from the ‘A Thousand Voices’ project in Powell River,” says Burke-Smith, a local artist who is perhaps most easily identified by her always colourful hair and genuinely warm and welcoming smile. “We felt it was really important for the games to open in a way that remembered the Aboriginal history of this land. The songs were sung in Cree and Dene.”

The drum project, which was developed through the Boreal Artist Institute, was designed to not only reflect the history of the region but to bring people together.

“When you are around the drum you are equal,” says Burke-Smith. “Big, little, small, different ages – all are equal.”

“We had 84 drummers at the opening ceremonies,” says Bertschy, who is a respected and revered elder always willing to share traditional wisdom and teachings with others. “58 at the closing. They ranged in age from 4 years to 74 years old.”

Attracting drummers to the project began in local schools and in the community, taking the drums to different places to showcase the traditional art of Aboriginal drumming. The drums themselves proved a powerful attractant, and their list of drummers grew in an organic way as more and more residents signed on to drum at the ceremonies.

“When you hand out sticks and a drum everyone wants to try,” says Burke-Smith. “Many people have seen the drums at a powwow and have always wanted to try the drum, but never had the opportunity.”

“The drums became accessible, and it brought people together for practices,” says Burke-Smith of how the drums began to connect people in the community with each other.

“We even signed up two people who just wandered into the Boreal Artist Institute who thought this was still the tourist information building,” says Bertschy with a laugh (the Boreal Artist Institute is located in the basement of the former Fort McMurray Tourism building). “One was from Spain and one was from Mexico. One was here on holidays and one was here to learn about the region. So, we signed them up and they drummed with us for the opening and closing ceremonies,” he adds, reflecting on what must have been a most remarkable experience for two visitors to our region.

“We had a drummer who found us on Facebook,” says Burke-Smith. “He was from Norway. Many of our participants were immigrants too, so the drums brought together people from all walks of life. It wasn’t always easy – sometimes it was like herding cats! – but it was always worth it.”

Sonia Burke-Smith and Bill Bertschy are undoubtedly unique in many ways, and perhaps not what one expects to find in a place like Fort McMurray, Alberta – but they are exactly the kind of unusual suspects who not only contribute to the community but who also enrich it every day through their actions and their belief in our ability to transcend our differences and celebrate our common ground through projects that reflect our art and culture, such as the drumming project that stole hearts and minds this summer in Fort McMurray. 


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.