A frontier town met the final frontier when Edmonton played host to the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards on March 16.
This year's 14 award recipients were the stars set among a galaxy of planets, represented on stage by dangling globes of color and sharing space with the brown hand of the Creator reaching down from the heavens to clasp a world in his fingers.
Staircases wound their way up to the outer reaches where Saturn's colorful rings provided a backdrop for a horse and rider in a full bonnet of feathers and with a spear held high, chasing down a buffalo.
While not the most elaborate or innovative set design in the eight-year history of the awards show, it served the stated purpose, which was to represent the mystery and glory of the universe and its complexities.
John Kim Bell, the founder and chairman of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, the organization that puts on the awards night, said the set represented both inner and outer space, with the stairs forming double helixes, the determiner of all life on earth. The microscopic organisms found inside our bodies, explained Bell, have no concept of the whole of the hosts they occupy, and mankind has no concept of the whole of the universe that we occupy or the nature of the plan the Creator has for us all.
The plan for the evening, though, was well known to the members of the packed Jubilee Auditorium. It was to be introduced to and honor 14 exemplary individuals who occupy places of importance in our universe, who have made our planet a better place in which to live, and who have been shown to be luminaries in the Aboriginal community.
The lives of Mariano Aupilardjuk, Dolly Watts, Freda Ahenakew, Roman Bittman, Mary Thomas, Dr. Lindsay Crowshoe, Richard Nerysoo, Leonard S. Marchand, Fred House, Zacharias Kunuk, Nicholas Sibbeston, Tomson Highway, Lance Relland and Harold Cardinal provide us with inspiration and the knowledge that a better day for Aboriginal people is upon us. Short video productions described each winner's achievements and the contributions made to society.
Brought together to help pay tribute to their stories was a group of exceptional performers, including a proudly pregnant Fara, whose voice becomes richer and warmer with each passing year.
Always astounding is mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, who was joined by Carey Newman and Melody Mercredi in singing "The Prayer" in a stunning finale complete with laser light show.
But it was young Krystle Pederson who stole the evening with a cute shtick. She sang "At the Beginning" from Disney's Anastasia to the bedazzled Lance Relland, the youth award recipient. Pulling Relland from the audience and up onto the stage, she tugged him close and coyly wrapped his arms around her waist and, in the bargain, the audience around her delicate little finger. Her fresh, innocent face and powerful performance will be a favorite memory of this year's awards show.
A pre-show show included a performance from Moving Spirit, a drum and dance group that performed a rather long intertribal, though expertly. The Edmonton Métis Cultural Dancers were also on hand and got the house doing a jig in their seats. It is unsure whether these performances will reach the larger audience when the show is broadcast on CBC.
The spirited Lorrie Church primed the audience with an energetic rendition of I Ain't Perfect, an odd choice considering the evening's intentions.
"Well, I ain't perfect, baby, but neither are you," sang Church as perhaps a warning to anyone who might take aim at Bell, who routinely draws fire from critics for the choices he makes in the production of the awards gala.
And this year's show was not without its problems.
From the "I was held captive on the Starship Enterprise and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" file . . .
Yes, by all means, we have to thank the sponsors, but the bludgeoning the audience suffered through in the unending barrage of commercial spots and speches from individuals, including the premier of Alberta, for goodness sakes, paying homage to the almighty buck, left us exhausted and wasted.
Giving thanks is a delicate business. Showing appreciation takes skill and grace, as does accepting the thanks and the appreciation of others. What took place March 16 wasn't skillful or graceful and ultimately paid a disservice to the organizations that chose to honor Aboriginal achievement.
One must have faith. Either the premise of the awards night is a good and worthy one, or it isn't. Either the companies that support the show believe in its worth or they don't. If what is required to continue the tradition of honoring good people is to go cap in hand to big business, then perhaps a rethink is necessary, because such crawling diminishes the awards, their recipients and all of Aboriginal Canada.
Absolutely, we give thanks, but it is the way thanks is given and received that marks the quality of the gift, the giver and the recipient. A show of dignity is required.
Altogether out of place during an evening devoted to the achievements of the individual was a business award called the Ontario Aboriginal Partnerships Recognition Award. As well, the award is not national in scope, as are the achievement awards, but limited to highlighting successful Ontario-based business partnerships.
More video time was devoted to the story of the winner of this award than it was to any one of the achievement award winners, which was unfortunate. Perhaps Bell's foundation is expanding into a new, lucrative achievement field, but the award presentation would have been better left to an evening intended to honor economic development, such as the Canadian Council For Aboriginal Business's Circle of 2015 annual gala, where I first saw the video presentation.