Buffy Sainte-Marie has spent her decades-long musical career improving the lives of Indigenous people through her social activism and philanthropy but when the iconic singer-songwriter found out she’d be receiving an award to recognize her humanitarian work, she could hardly believe it.
“I’m feeling pretty humbled. You don’t expect that kind of thing,” says Sainte-Marie. “(My first reaction) was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”
The 2017 Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, which recognizes a Canadian artist whose humanitarian contributions have made a great social impact, will be presented to Sainte-Marie at the non-televised JUNO Gala Dinner & Awards on April 1 in Ottawa.
“It’s very nice that the JUNOs recognize (work) beyond show business and … notice what people are doing beyond just making great records. So I send it right back to them and say thank you very much.”
Over her more than 50 year career, Sainte-Marie has been recognized with numerous awards, including an Academy Award (for her song “Up Where We Belong”), four JUNO Awards, a Golden Globe, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, a BAFTA Award, and several Queen’s Jubilee Medals and Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. She has also received the Order of Canada and has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame.
But she says being honoured for her humanitarian work holds a special kind of meaning, especially because it means she is now in the company of previous recipients that have included Arcade Fire, Rush, Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida, Neil Young and Bryan Adams.
“It’s just good to know that people are doing things in their private lives and in their non-showbiz lives that sometimes will have an impact because of the beautiful spotlight that show business can shine on world events and things that we want to change,” says Sainte-Marie.
Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan and raised in Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie has been making music since her early 20s. Her 1964 anti-war peace anthem “Universal Soldier” helped put her on the map and helped give her a platform to make the world a better place.
While “Universal Soldier” did have an impact on the world, Sainte-Marie says it was never enough to just have written a good song, she wanted to make sure she could speak out about the inequality in the world.
“What I’ve tried to do is bring people an awareness that it’s OK to care and if you try, you might actually succeed in making a difference, making some changes, helping other people to become hopeful that they can have some impact in the world.
“So many people think the world is just owned by corporations but you can have an impact in your own world, whether it’s at a family level, a community level, a provincial and national level or just out there in the big, bad world as an entertainer and songwriter and sometimes you can be a teacher, sometimes you can deliver people information that they would not have heard otherwise. That’s kind of like songwriter as journalist and I think it can impact the world, maybe not hugely but little things add up.”
In 1969, Sainte-Marie started The Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, which is dedicated to improving the education of Native American students and educating people of all backgrounds about Native American culture. It also provides scholarships for students, two of whom have gone on to found Tribal Colleges, something Sainte-Marie is incredibly proud of.
“The real joy for me comes when I do some small thing for somebody and then they take it on and they maximize it beyond anything I could have done myself.”
As well as humanitarian efforts, Sainte-Marie was also honoured for her music in 2015 with the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, Canada’s largest cash music award, for her album “Power in the Blood.”
“Winning the Polaris Prize was a big surprise. I do like ‘Power in the Blood’ I think it’s a great record but I listened to all the others and they had great records, too, so I’m just very grateful.”
Sainte-Marie says she always has new songs popping into her head and is thinking of doing a compilation of all her protest songs and nourishing songs in one place.
She’ll also continue to use her voice to raise awareness for causes she believes in.
“Many, many thanks to the people who recognize that no matter how great the song is, there’s always a little bit more work you can do to make the world better.”