Celeigh Cardinal © Megan Kemshead
By Vanessa Grant
Celeigh Cardinal didn’t become a musician to meet other people’s expectations. Quite the opposite—the Métis singer-songwriter became an artist to challenge them.
“Growing up a Native kid in a white community, there wasn’t somebody who looked like me in the media. It made me try to dye my hair blonde, have blue eye contacts, and be on diets from the time I was 11. You’d think that would make me feel like I didn’t belong, but something deeper inside me pushed past that insecurity and made me feel that music was my purpose.”
That inner voice proved to be right. The 42-year-old from Grand Prairie is now a Juno award winner known for her powerhouse vocals and songs about heartbreak. But her success challenges the mainstream and paves the way for anyone who feels different.
“I’ve been on stage and seen a chubby 11-year-old girl that I saw myself in and thought ‘Heck yeah! I’m doing this. You can do this if you want to.’”
Cardinal’s bluesy acoustic tracks and recent experimentation with synth-pop also push audiences to think beyond Buffy Sainte-Marie when it comes to Indigenous artists.
“I’ve been hired for a show where people were expecting me to show up with a drum, doing a prayer, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I have this classical guitar and I’m gonna sing sad songs.’ People always assumed that if I was an Indigenous performer, they’d be getting something traditional.”
Cardinal explains that while these narrow stereotypes are slowly changing, they continue to limit opportunities for Indigenous performers.
“It’s difficult being an Indigenous artist in Canada when there are only so many spots for us at festivals because people still think of us as a genre. They’ll hire a couple of Indigenous artists, but it still feels kind of tokenized. We end up almost feeling like we’re in competition with each other.”
Cardinal believes more diverse Indigenous representation can broaden assumptions. On a personal level, this means showing up as her authentic self and being open about why she may not be as connected to her culture as other Indigenous artists.
Cardinal explains that her father and his siblings were part of the Sixties Scoop—a period when the Canadian government removed Indigenous children from their families, often without their consent, and placed them in the child welfare system. For thousands of families like Cardinal’s, this mass removal led to a devasting loss of cultural heritage and knowledge that persists today.
“It’s so heartbreaking because that loss of community is exactly what colonization was meant to do. And it works. It’s sad, but this is why I write sad songs.”
Cardinal, whose ancestors are from the Sawridge Band of Slave Lake, is reclaiming her roots through music. She’s working on her third album and says the journey of reconnecting with her culture is “woven into my songs.” Set to be released in the fall, Cardinal recently previewed tracks from the record in Toronto at her TO Live performance in May.
Building relationships with more Indigenous artists is another way Cardinal is learning about her culture. She says the Indigenous music community across Canada feels like home. Supporting this family is just one of the reasons why she relishes the opportunity to highlight Indigenous acts in her role as a radio producer.
“It’s so important to me that I find people who aren’t being represented and give space to them. It’s something I’m super passionate about because of how a lack of representation affected me as a child. I want people to feel like they belong. And the only way is to see themselves.”
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