Casually mention Canada to folks, asking what first comes to mind, and the popular culture responses will likely hover around things like: extreme winters, ice hockey, Canadian French, maple syrup, and-or notable politeness. Behind easily recalled answers like these however, is an aspect of Canada’s history that is far more significant, yet far less discussed as part of Canada’s mainstream cultural dialogue: Indigenous communities and First Nation peoples.
Though some of the most
recognizable Canadian regions and cities have names derived from Indigenous
language origins – Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg for example
– the deeper history of the people who make up the diverse communities that use
such language, and their affiliated cultures and traditions, often go under
acknowledged or otherwise entirely un-explored by the mainstream populations in
and outside of Canada.
That said, for someone like singer-songwriter William Prince, who himself is a member of the Peguis First Nation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it’s not a lack of cognizance around Canada’s First Nation culture that pervaded his experience growing up. In fact, much to the contrary of that, between a combination of recognizing his own fortune of privilege from childhood and the vast lack of communication and understanding around the values and experiences of First Nation people right now, Prince felt it poignant to write a new album of country gospel music, titled Gospel First Nation, inspired by some of Canada’s Indigenous communities.
“(The decision to make Gospel
First Nation) came from a need or, just wanting to have more music in this
time, I guess. Wanting to have something out there that could further help in
this situation (of current events,)” Prince explains.
“It’s very much inspired by this world event we’re living through and the sudden shift in our––you know––all the things we’ve been so accustomed to, suddenly disappearing,” Prince continues. “(Additionally,) regulating how we live, and the clarity of health, and family. And all these different things really put me in this place of nostalgia, almost thinking back to the times when I would be playing in old churches, you know, (for) wake services, funerals and such.”
At the same time, even with
the weight and significance of the present moment in mind, Prince also saw pursuing
Gospel First Nation as an opportunity to celebrate the goodness that
came from his upbringing around music and the Christian church – even if not
everyone in his local First Nation communities saw that space in the same
“(Another) thing to take (away) is that this is supposed to be a joyous representation of songs I loved, and grew up with, and learned music from,” Prince says. “This record leans much more toward the Jesus who would have been out there right now, helping the people who are suffering to pay rent, and dealing through this crisis, and people that are sick, and ‘bring me your weak,’ and ‘bring me those that need my attention,’.”
Seeing a project like this being made and given Prince’s place in the Peguis community, it might surprise some to learn it was actually the lesser-mentioned friction fomented between Christian theology – including the existence and practice of singing Christian gospel songs – and the ongoing efforts to sustain First Nation culture, that eluded Prince’s awareness in earlier years of his life.
“I’d say there is a segregation. But at the same time, the beautiful thing about First Nations people is that we are open to many truths,” says Prince.
“And that’s the idea. That’s why the concept of the Creator and the higher power, (and) all these things that I believe in now, (that) it’s okay for me to reflect back and say, ‘Yes, there was a bit of a divide between the Christian and cultural First Nations people.’ I should say, a bit of the thing could have been, that cultural people would find [Christianity] hard to follow because that is the – to put it bluntly – white man’s religion, you know? And the concept of religion, I think, is what is damaging to the contents of some of the messages and extracting those messages and learning them through song.” Prince explains.
“Even having dreamcatchers in the house at a point felt like a conflict between [Christianity and First Nation Culture],” he continues. “To believe in [First Nation] culture would be the premise of false idols. ‘You shall worship no other false idols besides God.’,”
Still, being removed from those initial views of childhood via time and self-reflection, it becomes more understandable how someone in Prince’s position – fostering recognition and appreciation of both spiritual and cultural cores in his life – would come to a place of inner balance about it, enough so as to get joy from making a record that embraces each without causing inner turmoil.
“As I got older and just became more educated in my own choices and understanding of things,” he says. “(I realized) they’re all quite free-flowing between each other when it comes to the principles of love and inclusion. And the things that I don’t necessarily agree with in the Christian world, you know, I’ve allowed those parts to, I guess, be on the side and take parts of that message because that’s my whole approach.”
“There are various truths that we can learn to take knowledge from and it’s up to us ultimately,” Prince explains. “There’s not a manual that’s going to tell you to be a good person. You should wake up and there will either be something in you that is drawing you to a more helpful nature or, perhaps a more angry nature of whatever degree. That’s all a very complicated unwinding in every person out there, depending on your circumstance. So perhaps some of the First Nations people that embrace that (thought process) more were looking for answers or something,” he says.
This reality of Prince’s childhood is of particularly intriguing note, given that his father’s service as a preacher put Prince in the orbit of ample Christian practices and ideas – including the faith’s nurtured performance of gospel music. Add to this, his father’s personal appreciation for classic country artists and Prince was exposed to a vastly diverse set of sounds, styles, and sentiments. Ultimately, each played a role in shaping his worldview, as well as his musicality and personal family values.
“It’s a difficult conversation as an Indigenous man, to sing the (gospel) songs of the oppressor, when there’s a whole nation built on the extinguishing of my people––my Indian identity itself,” says Prince.
“(Gospel First Nation) is another version of (those songs), just from influence,” Prince elaborates. “So that’s (where) this record came about (from) because it’s a certain feel, and sound, that I grew up around. And if I were not to document it and capture it, it might be lost because all the people I grew up learning music with, are gone now. They’ve all passed. They’ve all, you know, died – including my dad – who isn’t here to hear this. (But) I wanted to make the record that I think he would have dreamed of making. This is kind of my ode to him. I wanted to have songs for all occasions within a church service.
Of course, just as the perspective and personal stance regarding Christianity varies from one First Nations individual to the next, the intended contemplations and emotional flow built into Gospel First Nation swings back and forth for Prince as well. Moving from the best of occasions, to the harshest of realities.
“Envision yourself standing by the grave side of a young, 15 year old First Nations boy, or girl who, took their life – committed suicide. You know what in the world would you possibly sing there to help a family?” Prince asks openly.
That said, for Prince, it’s not a matter of stirring up emotional shock value or conceptual whiplash. It’s having an understanding that the topics, people, lived realities and attached emotions at hand are complex and intertwined in a way that can’t be neatly partitioned and compartmentalized the same way the music on an album is distinctly separated by tracks.
“That’s what some of those songs (on the album) are,” he continues, “because that’s an epidemic in the First Nations community: suicide due to lack of resources health, mental health education, sexual abuse, substance abuse…All these things are plaguing the First Nations communities and continuing to feed a cycle of oppression that allows us to either die on reserves without any hope or ambition or, you break through enough and you get university education and you find your way in a career, (but) you’re still painted with a broad brush of being ‘just an Indian,’.”
Now carrying years of perspective and refined awareness about these contrasting elements, the idea of Prince crafting an album intent on positively blending the cultures of Canadian First Nation communities with the very style of praise music associated with cultural oppression and social struggle, speaks to just how much sensitivity and interpersonal nuance Prince has accrued over time. After all, it’s not just a matter of writing a song in gospel form, or using instrumentation conventional to the gospel genre.
The music of Gospel First Nation straddles a delicate line between original, sometimes autobiographical storytelling; a sonically beloved country aesthetic, and spiritually-minded performance, in addition to giving priority to memorable, significant aspects of First Nations people.
“I wanted to lean more to the Kris Kristofferson side of things,” Prince says. “Jesus was a Capricorn you know? He was a man of the people. My dad (meanwhile), was as much in service of Jesus, as he was Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride. That’s where the songs come from because the First Nations people out there – where I come from and (in) Northern Manitoba – they would have been doing their best emulations of the great Hank Williams and John Fogarty and Johnny Cash (and) Charlie Pride.”
All the same, while Gospel First Nation unfurls with a natural candor – its diversity of sonic and historical characters and never sounding forced together or clinically assembled – there remains a depth of hopefulness and optimistic aspiration. That positivity rises above any of the rest of the pain, confusion, and discord intertwined with the album’s very historically complex identity. Coming from that kind of mentality, it’s enthralling to consider what an album so rife with first hand experience and first hand social growth on the part of Prince, can end up doing for those without the same kind of understanding and learned empathy.
“This is the music that all the younger people (in the area) would have grown up playing baseball and hockey to, you know? This is my interpretation, wanting to make a great country album (that) just so happens to be rooted in the great tradition of gospel music – the very place that I learned the framework for songs and how songs are built and how they work. I owe a lot to gospel songs. And I just wanted to do a little collection of them,” Prince says.
“This album has been a chapter in a long, long story I hope to tell until I can’t anymore. I didn’t want to do this album 10 albums from now when it’s like, ‘Oh, what haven’t I done?’ I wanted it to be when I was here at my strongest and at my most clear to present this historical side of my family’s upbringing in life. My entire musical history is presented within this project in a sense.”