Composing Louis Riel's Dream

Music Professor Karen Sunabacka presented the 2021 Benjamin Eby Lecture this October, titled “Composing Louis Riel’s Dream: Exploring the history of the Red River Settlement through family stories and music.” In this lecture she looked at how she has explored her mixed European and Métis heritage in her music. Below, Karen describes her lecture in more detail. 

I have always known I was a Red River Métis, but I haven’t always known what that means. In the last 10 years I have been doing a lot of exploring and learning about my family history in the Red River settlement, and what it means to have a mixed European and Métis heritage. These explorations often occurred first through my compositions and then through research and family conversations that grew into more compositions as my curiosity led me to new revelations. 

To take you through these explorations I divided my talk into three parts. The first part looks at three pieces I composed about my Métis grandmother Lenore Clouston. It is thanks to her that I knew I was Métis and it is through explorations of her life in my compositions that I have discovered more about what it means to be Métis and learned more about the history of the Métis people. In this section I also talk about how my collaborations with my mom, Joyce Clouston, began.

The second part looks at a piece I wrote about my settler heritage on the theme of mental illness, and specifically about my great-great-grandmother Matilda Clouston, who moved to the Red River Settlement around 1866 and spent the final 25 years of her life in the Manitoba Asylum.  

In the third section I discuss two recent pieces about my Aunt Beverley which were both inspired by the writing of my mom, Joyce Clouston.

Because of my mixed heritage, I have benefited from colonialism and I have been wounded by colonialism. But it is through my music that I have found my voice, that I have healed my wounds, and where I continue to explore the complicated relationships of my past and present. 

The Benjamin Eby Lecture is an annual lecture that presents the research of a faculty member at Conrad Grebel University College. It is named after Benjamin Eby (1785-1853), an early educator and Mennonite church leader in Waterloo County.