Composing Louis Riel's Dream

Monday, October 25, 2021

When Karen Sunabacka was 3 years old, her Métis grandmother gave her a book titled Riel’s People: How the Métis Lived by Maria Campbell. Karen always knew she was Metis.

Her Grandparent’s farm, near Selkirk, Manitoba, was a gathering place for the local English Métis community and Karen with her siblings spent countless hours dancing, fiddling, and exploring the rural prairie landscape. As Karen’s love of music grew, she found herself being trained by and composing in the European Western Art Music Tradition. She was enthralled by this rich musical heritage and didn’t quite know how to bring this together with her Métis roots. Yet her heritage is both Settler and Indigenous and her family sits at the intersection of two very different world views.

This can sometimes be an uncomfortable space. Her grandfather’s family was racist towards her grandmother’s family, and this dynamic was present in every generation of her family, beginning in the early 1800’s. How does one make sense of this ever present conflict? A conflict that continues within the Canadian landscape, institutions, and social structures. In more recent years Karen has started exploring this intersection by telling family stories in her musical compositions. This has brought her, and her audiences, a new awareness of the history of the Red River Settlement and her family’s place within it.

In the 2021 Benjamin Eby Lecture on October 21 at Grebel, Music Professor Karen Sunabacka discussed her heritage, a number of her compositions, her inspiration for the pieces, her collaborations with her mother Joyce Clouston, her challenges, and the ways the pieces have been received. Watch the full presentation in the video below, titled "Composing Louis Riel's Dream: Exploring the history of the Red River Settlement through family stories and music."

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.

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