There is a shocking video embedded in a section of Mike Stevens' website.
In it, the Ontario-based harmonica virtuoso is surrounded by a group of kids in Sheshatshui, an Innu community in Labrador. He talks to them briefly then offers to play a fast-paced tune on his harmonica.
Throughout the clip most of the teens are clutching green bags and huffing their contents, which Stevens later explains is gas. "There were about eight kids with gas bags to their faces," Stevens says over the phone after arriving in Victoria recently. "I had a pretty big career going. I had lots of awards and I was flying all over the world playing shows. I was pretty self-absorbed being the best harmonica player I could be at the top of my game. When I ran into these kids it changed everything. It changed my reasons for playing music and what music is for."
Stevens handed the kids extra harmonicas he had on hand and watched as they lit up.
That video, now about a dozen years old, was aired on a TV news program and, eventually, it was broadcast around the world. As tragic and disturbing as it was, Stevens saw it as an opportunity to educate people on a rampant, little known problem in isolated Canadian communities.
After the encounter, he continued on his tour but "all of a sudden I became the person people wanted to talk to about gas sniffing and these kids," he says. "It seemed like my five minutes that (people) might listen."
By that point, he also had a storied career behind him. After picking up a harmonica around age 12, he spent years successfully convincing bluegrass bands — including big names like Little Roy Lewis from the Lewis Family who gave him his first major break — that his instrument could work in the genre. He had played the Grand Ole Opry and was making a viable living with an unusual instrument.
The experience in Sheshatshui, though, prompted him to put his flourishing career on the backburner to create ArtsCan Circle, a non-profit organization that connects Indigenous, at-risk youth in Canadian communities with musician mentors and instruments.
"The crazy part about this is it isn't about teaching kids to play an instrument," Stevens says. "It's just getting them inspired. These kids are so creative and so full of energy. It's just letting them know that where they're from is special and what they have to say is really important. We'll go there and listen and try and help, but we're not out to change or fix anything. The kids have it in them. We're just trying to give them a voice."
Funded at first by Stevens, the organization now runs on a shoestring budget fuelled by donations, a few grants and fundraisers. They don't parachute in never to return, but rather develop an ongoing relationship with the communities they visit.
On one of those return trips Stevens noticed that his arsenal of donated instruments — meant to be checked out as part of a lending library — were all gone. He worried about the disappearance until he heard about the bands popping up in the communities. "The instruments are being used in the way they're supposed to be," he says. "Not in the way I planned, but this is much better."
While abusing dangerous substances like gas is still a visible problem in many places, Stevens says he has seen some change in the last few years. "Sheshatshui has improved as well," he says. "They have more control over their government and have an Innu school with local knowledge. It's changed. I've seen a lot of positive change, but I also just came back from a place with no running water and gas missing. It's across Canada and it shouldn't be like that."
Stevens will be sharing these stories in Whistler June 4 at The Brew Creek Centre in the first in an ongoing series there called Arts and Artists for a Change. The event will also feature a screening of a new film about the organization called
A Walk in My Dream. "Music comes from an honest place, a real place," Stevens says, explaining the organization's success. "You don't have to be a great musician. When I met those kids I wanted to connect with them. If you play music from that place, it cuts through a lot of stuff. Words get in the way sometimes and (music) makes a connection."