Indigenous war hero Francis Pegahmagabow the focus of musical tribute

Article / August 9, 2018 / Project number: 18-0330

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — The creators of a multi-faceted musical tribute to Company Sergeant-Major Francis Pegahmagabow hope their treatment of the First World War hero’s story will be a starting point for healing discussions between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians.

Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow combines music, drama and visual elements to tell the story of CSM Pegahmagabow, the most highly-decorated Indigenous soldier to serve in the war.

A performance of Sounding Thunder took place in Ottawa on July 31 as part of Chamberfest, a classical music festival held annually in the capital.

CSM Pegahmagabow earned a fierce reputation as a sniper with more than 300 confirmed kills. He is one of only 38 Canadians to receive the Military Medal with two bars – each in recognition of an act of bravery. The modern equivalent is the Medal of Military Valour.

Hours before the performance in Ottawa, the creative team behind Sounding Thunder sat with an attentive audience at the National Gallery of Canada to discuss its creation.

The seeds of the production were fittingly planted in Parry Sound, Ontario, near CSM Pegahmagabow’s birthplace and post-war home, the Wasauksing First Nation. James Campbell, artistic director of the local arts organization Festival of the Sound, began to conceptualize the piece there two years ago.

The local community saluted CSM Pegahmagabow in 2016 with the unveiling of a statue in his image, Mr. Campbell said he hoped to craft a tribute that could be more widely shared.

“Music, words, art and drama live and make the story a living thing,” he said.

Armand Ruffo, the Ojibwe writer charged with scripting the piece, recalled a remarkable coincidence that occurred just before he was invited to contribute.

He was sent a copy of Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow, to review for a literary publication. The book’s author is Dr. Brian McInnes, CSM Pegahmagabow’s great-grandson.

“I was right into the book,” he said. “It’s really a wonderful feat.”

Mr. Ruffo never did write the review, but the book affected him deeply and he embraced the opportunity to contribute to a musical adaptation.

“When the invitation came I said, ‘this was meant to be.’ I’m very honoured to be part of it.”

Dr. McInnes, who narrated the Ottawa performance, said he appreciated the creators’ desire to tell a more complete version of the story – one that goes beyond CSM Pegahmagabow’s remarkable military service, touching on his subsequent role as a political leader and advocate for First Nations Peoples.

“What I think we do in this performance is show more of who he was at his core,” he said, noting that his great-grandfather was himself a musician who played a number of brass instruments.

Dr. McInnes also observed that composer Timothy Corlis’ work on the piece is a blend of Indigenous and European sounds. That approach is fitting, he added, noting that, while CSM Pegahmagabow was subject to all the systemic discrimination faced by First Nations Peoples of the time, he still believed strongly in the idea of a unified Canada. 

“[The production] brings together many traditions,” Dr. McInnes said. “That’s who he was: someone who truly loved the world.”

Mr. Ruffo added that the creators’ intent was to leave audiences with a sense of optimism despite those darker elements.

“It won’t bruise,” he said. “You’ll leave feeling we can do something better.”

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