Interview with Juanita Muise: Musician, and Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at UTS
In October, Juanita Muise — musician, and Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at the University of Toronto Scarborough — joined students at Sistema Toronto - Scarborough to teach them about Indigenous music and drumming, and to speak about the significance of music to her culture. After the workshop, we sat down with Juanita to talk about her lifelong relationship with music and the impact she hopes to have as a music educator.
Read full transcript below.
So Kwe, hi, I’m Juanita, I’m the Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at University of Toronto Scarborough. I am Mi’Kmaq and Acadian French and I’m from Qalipu First Nation which is on the beautiful island of Newfoundland which is the most eastern province in Canada. I love music and I love sharing music and being able to be in this environment gives me much pleasure.
What was the first musical instrument you ever played?
My voice! (laughter)
I loved singing from a young age and I come from a very musical family so almost all my mother’s brothers and sisters – my grandpa played the accordian, my aunts, a lot of my aunts, played the guitar, some played the banjo and the harmonica. So you know I grew up, like Sundays usually we would eat and have music afterwards. Yeah, there was a lot of music. And still, to this day, I think that was always very healing to me, to be with family and to sing.
What drew you towards music education?
You know all of us are educators at some point because we all carry different gifts and, you know, our gifts are meant to be shared with others.
So for me, I guess, it started at a young age. I think I was in grade kindergarten or maybe grade 1? I had a music teacher, Mrs. Dawson, and she really thought I had a beautiful voice, and – you know, my mom was a single mom and didn’t have a lot of money, couldn’t afford music lessons. So when I was in grade 1, (I had Mrs. Dawson from grade 1 up until I think grade 6), and in that time, when there were recitals and stuff happening, she would bring me to recitals. She made sure that I got to take voice lessons. She gave me voice lessons for free, not for a charge, because she just nurtured that ability in me. And I was a super shy kid so music was that way of overcoming some of that shyness.
When I went up to grade 7, like jr. high – it was like jr. high to high school – and so Mrs. Dawson was no longer the music teacher but she encouraged me to take music. We had to buy all our instruments; we didn’t have them in our community, so it really prevented a lot of students from actually having the capacity or means to be able to do that. So the clarinet was one of the cheapest instruments – I wanted to learn the saxophone but I learned the clarinet. But I’m really glad I did because my band instructor was phenomenal. Like I remember grade 8 there was a senior concert band and only 3 juniors were picked. I applied for it, and the other juniors who applied were taking music training, theory, all that stuff outside of school, and I didn’t have any of that so I knew I was up against really tough competition. But I was determined, and I really wanted to be a part of this concert band because they got to travel and I’d never been anywhere, so I wanted to use music and travel. So I applied in grade 8 for the senior band. I didn’t get in the first time, and I went to the music teacher and I said “look I really, really – could you give me another opportunity to prove myself? I really want to be a part of this band.” So I did, and then I got in. I auditioned a second time and got in and yeah, that’s where my love of, you know, performing on stage with music and how everybody comes together to create beautiful music and I love that, yeah.
I was an only child. So I was always around my mom’s older siblings. I was in martial arts and I was always around older people because I advanced through my belts. I was always an overachiever so I always pushed myself to do better. And when it came to music, for me, it was always healing, it always helped me through a lot of tough times in my life. And so when I was in grade… I think it was grade 7, we had an Indigenous Elder from New Brunswick come to Newfoundland. And that’s when revitalisation was starting to happen in my community, and he brought the songs and the dances to the children. And I was in one of the first groups, one of the first Mi’Kmaq song and dance groups on the island. And then my family moved when I was 16, but that was the first time that I experienced getting to know more about my culture. But I’ve lived in 3, 4 different First Nation communities, so I’ve learned a lot of teachings and got to be in many different drum circles and stuff like that. So for me just being part of the community and also learning the songs and the teachings behind them. It’s been a journey for me and it continues.
How did you learn about Indigenous music?
So it was when the Elder, George Paul came to our community, and he taught some of the older, traditional songs. The Mi’Kmaq Honour Song, and yeah it was a turning point for me in the sense that a lot of people – because of everything that happened in our communities – there was a lot of racism towards Indigenous people and a lot of people didn’t want to identify as being Indigenous. So my eldest auntie, she started doing the genealogy of our whole family and that’s when we started learning our stories and getting some of our teachings and stuff back. When she started that project, she did that project for many of the families on the west coast of the island. So yeah, music played a huge part in learning the songs and being part of community. And to this day… like I have a picture of when I was home this summer and I got to drum in a circle with community and like probably like 8 or 9 of my aunties. That, to me, is – you couldn’t even pay. It’s so priceless and precious to me. Yeah – a huge change in revitalisation of culture in my community and people standing proud now. And standing up and saying, “I am proud to be Indigenous.” And the music is the first step in bringing back the culture I think.
Can you tell us about the work you did with the Sistema Students?
You know, I wanted to give a little context because I know, I grew up Roman Catholic, and music played a huge part in going to church, and the songs were healing. And I think that the students being able to relate to this here is sort of historic in a way. Before, drums were not allowed in the schools and in some Indigenous communities in Canada the drum is still not allowed. They see the drum as evil because it was something the church had condemned when they came into these communities and saw it as witchcraft. So, you know, there are some communities that I’ve been in where the drum is not allowed to be drummed, and there are some communities where women are not allowed to carry the hand drum. So there’s different protocols and there’s different nations that see things differently, and I think part of our gifts is meant to be shared. If we don’t share, then we don’t break down those biases and misunderstandings that are out there, you know? And I think music is sort of intergenerational – it doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are, I think music can touch all of us and heal all of us and I think it is the way through to reconciliation – I think it should be through song and music. Because I think as a nation we all have to heal and starting with the young – the leaders that are going to be out there – you know, generations to come, if they don’t learn it, if there’s not opportunities and spaces where they get to experience this, then we’re falling short of our leaders of tomorrow.
You know, for me coming here, sharing some social songs with the students, I think - letting them know. Like one of the songs, Ko’jua, is an opportunity for everybody to share their voice in that space, right? A lot of our teachings are about respect and listening, and it’s not so much just the playing, but even if you’re in choir, listening to the people around you is very important, so seeing those intersections and those relations when it comes to music. It doesn’t matter whether you’re studying classical music or if you’re studying jazz, all of this is very important. Same with – I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about, when students, especially young students see a drum they think it’s just an instrument and it’s not, in my culture. So I think it’s like educating the young about that so they know the stories and the teachings around the drum so they can approach it in a respectful way, understanding all cultures are different and have different teachings. So I think that, in itself, was an act of reconciliation.
Can you tell us about your role as Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at UTS and the impact you’re hoping to have in that role?
You know I’m just one of two Indigenous staff on our campus right now (Interviewer: on the whole campus?) On the whole campus. So we have a long ways to go in regards to reconciliation, you know. Lots of attempts are happening. I think building those relationships outside of our campus, inviting community music groups, you know, whatnot, into our spaces can also be a very powerful way of breaking down barriers. But also what I’ve realized in my role is that everybody is on different learning journeys and we have a very diverse population. And so, you know, whether you are a manager, a student, a faculty, you know I think we’re all at different places on our path towards reconciliation or understanding the context and the history behind that. Not just understanding it but being able to take actionable steps toward change. And without knowledge, and truth, and understanding the true history of Canada I don’t think we can move forward. And I think for me - because of my passion with music - I think that it’s sort of like, creating… this year for the first time we have a teepee on our campus but it’s an Indigenous structure whereas before we couldn’t even gather and do drumming because there were so few spaces where you can have music, you know? And the music department, what they have is mostly designated to their students, so having spaces where we can – I don’t know I think I’m going on too long (laughter).
But yeah, so, what do I do in my role? So part of it is engagement, part of it is educational, I try my best to empower students. Especially within the student life and in my portfolio. Like just recently – last Thursday -- we had a fire keeper teaching, so now we have a teepee. There’s a structure, but also with that is caring for the structure. So who’s going to care for the structure? So if I should move on, we need to have something in place, because you can’t just have something there and not do it in the right way, in a good way, you know what I mean? So lots of growing, lots of growing still to be done, to be had, but yeah I think that’s what it’s like within an educational institution. You have to just set goals and realize that change doesn’t happen quickly. Sometimes very slowly within these systems. And you
know, creating spaces for voices – for Indigenous voices – so that Indigenous students, facility, and staff, you know, often those voices aren’t heard in different spaces, and there’s very few Indigenous students on our campus so just creating opportunities and spaces for those voices to be heard, I think, is important.
But like I said, I’m very much an action-oriented person. The teacher in me is like “yeah, what’s ‘learning something’ if you don’t put it into practice?” Because then it’s just something that falls to the side. What’s the sake of having these documents and these calls to action if we’re not really going to sit with it, and sit and question like, we have this music program here – that the community has – but questioning, what are we doing? What can we do better? So I guess that’s sort of my role, is to create those spaces for dialogue, spaces for engagement, and bringing in Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous knowledge-keepers and opportunities for people to see different perspectives.