Learning she’d been awarded Canada’s highest honour within the performing arts elicited two extreme emotions from jazz singer and philanthropist Molly Johnson.
On one hand, she says she was “gobsmacked” and “shocked” to be amongst those getting a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement.
Fellow laureates named Thursday morning include singer k.d. lang, soprano Rosemarie Landry, playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and choreographer James Kudelka.
However, Johnson says she was “slightly annoyed” and it took her “a very good month” to just accept the honour.
“I went, ‘Achievement? What achievement?’ I’m still technically in the identical spot I used to be in once I had a punk band called Alta Moda within the ‘80s,” Johnson says when reached at her home just outside Toronto ahead of the announcement.
“I’m a Canadian musician who survived the music business for over 40 years. And prior to that, I used to be a theatre kid with the Mirvishes … and I can’t pay my rent. I can’t take my band to Europe without it tanking me financially.”
Johnson says she’s since come around to just accept the accolade, but adds her profession isn’t over yet.
Now 62, she points to imminent performances in Paris this March and ongoing community work that features her beloved artist-run Kensington Market Jazz Festival in downtown Toronto and a web-based Black history project she hopes can at some point function a teacher’s aid.
She also continues to gather donations for her Kumbaya Foundation, which closed in 1995 but remains to be being mailed cheques that she forwards to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Johnson co-founded it in 1992 to boost funds and awareness for people living with HIV/AIDS, only wrapping it when she became pregnant. In that short time, she says it raised greater than $4 million.
On March 8, she’s set to receive one other honour, when the French government will bestow her with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Tudor Alexis, consul general of France in Toronto, says in an emailed statement that Johnson is a preferred figure amongst jazz aficionados in France.
“Her live shows in Paris are generally sold out and French jazz radio stations often play her songs. It’s hence fitting that my country rewards her for all these achievements in her hometown, Toronto.”
Nowadays, Johnson is desirous to look forward, noting the performing arts award comes as she feels “at the highest of my game” and “in the most effective shape I’ve been in in a long time.”
“It’s opened up every kind of thoughts for me on ‘lifetime achievement,’” adds Johnson.
“What happens with the remaining of this life? What do I would like to do? It definitely asked me that query.”
Other awards announced Thursday include the National Arts Centre Award – for extraordinary work previously yr – for actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee of the play and TV adaptation “Kim’s Convenience,” and the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism within the Performing Arts, which fits to Indigenous entrepreneur and fundraiser John Kim Bell.
Bell, born on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve near Montréal to a Mohawk father and an American mother, said he’s “very honoured and humbled” by the popularity as he recalled obstacles to founding the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now referred to as Indspire, and its companion awards show, which marks its thirtieth anniversary May 11 in Edmonton.
Bell began his profession as a conductor of Broadway musicals in Recent York and in 1980 was made apprentice conductor of the Toronto Symphony, becoming the primary person of Indigenous heritage to conduct a serious orchestra, in accordance with a biography along with his awards citation.
Now business adviser and lead negotiator for Michipicoten First Nation on its mining and energy activity, Bell says a continuing throughline in his diverse profession has been a refusal to just accept “No” for a solution.
“People don’t think we have now the capabilities and the capability, they usually one way or the other take a look at us and think we’re inferior and never capable,” Bell says of Indigenous Peoples.
“But I at all times believed that it was possible. And I used to be willing to work incredibly hard. And I used to be willing to take risks by personally borrowing money to provide you with these items.”
In 1984, he established the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now referred to as Indspire, “raising some $80 million and sending tens of 1000’s of Indigenous students to high schools and universities across Canada, the U.S. and Europe,” says the biography.
In 1988, he produced, directed, co-composed and conducted an Indigenous ballet, “Within the Land of Spirits,” which premièred on the National Arts Centre and went on to tour the country.
All faced hurdles, he says.
“(I used to be told) ‘It’s impossible.’ ‘There are not any native people in ballet.’ ‘Who’re you?’ ‘You’re not a producer, you’re not an impresario, you’ve never raised any money in your life,’” Bell recalls.
“I used to be just really persevering, determined. I worked seven days every week, I worked at night, I borrowed money. And I used to be offended. I used to be offended at how our people were being treated. And I desired to fight back.“
A gala celebration for the laureates is ready for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on May 27.
Husband-and-wife film stars Ryan Reynolds and Blake Energetic are honorary chairs of the gala’s national committee of volunteers, which is raising the funds for the bash.
The Vancouver-born Reynolds received 2021’s National Arts Centre Award.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.