John Arcand- Master of the Metis Fiddle
John Arcand is a renowned Canadian Metis fiddler, composer, violin teacher and luthier who currently lives with his wife Vicki on an acreage just south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Perhaps best known for his leading role in the Metis cultural revival of the 1980’s and ‘90’s, Arcand has been dubbed the “Master of the Metis Fiddle”. The following is a brief account of his life and his contribution to Metis fiddle and Canadian culture.
Jean-Baptiste “John” Arcand was born on July 19, 1942, in Debden, Saskatchewan. At the age of six, he took up the fiddle and began to learn traditional Red River Metis tunes from his father Victor and his grandfather Jean-Baptiste, who hailed from a long line of Metis fiddlers. Metis music, like most folk music, was traditionally unwritten; repertoire was passed on aurally. When Arcand began learning fiddle tunes from his father and grandfather, there was little (if any) Metis sheet music in existence, and accordingly he learned everything by ear.
Outside of the home, Arcand refined his musical skills at school dances. Oftentimes the dances would be to the accompaniment of Metis fiddle tunes played by the village Elders. Just by listening to the Elders play and watching the feet of the dancers, Arcand developed an impeccable sense of timing and rhythm. When he was twelve years old, he began to play at the dances himself.
The Metis Cultural Revival
Ever since the North-West Rebellion of 1885, an attitude of cultural and racial shame pervaded Canadian Metis communities, such as those in the Qu’Appelle and Red River Valleys and the Prince Albert region. The Metis were shunned by both whites and First Nations alike, and often tried to pass themselves off as white or Indian when their appearances permitted. In spite of this, Arcand retained and sharpened his proficiency with the Metis fiddle throughout his adolescence and adult life.
As the years drew on, an increasing number of Metis Elders passed away, taking their knowledge of the traditional tunes with them to the grave. In time, Arcand found himself to be one of the few surviving champions of a rapidly dying art form. Determined to preserve this part of Metis culture, Arcand tasked himself with setting the traditional tunes he learned from his father, grandfather and other Metis Elders to paper. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful crusade.
In 1982, the Canadian government passed the Constitution Act which recognized the Metis as one of Canada’s three aboriginal peoples, alongside the First Nations and Inuit. This official recognition had a dramatic effect on the Metis people’s attitude towards their ancestry and heritage. Taking advantage of the situation, Arcand, along with a number of other artists, worked doggedly to revive the Metis culture. Volumes of traditional Metis tunes were composed. Albums were recorded. Metis music and dance camps, such as the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp in Emma Lake, Saskatchewan (the first fiddle camp in Canada), were established. This period of resurging Metis pride and cultural revival, in which Arcand was a key player, might be called the Metis Cultural Renaissance. Said Arcand of the experience in a 2014 interview at The Hills Are Alive Cultural Festival in the Cypress Hills, “for quite a long time [Metis music] was dying off until we revived it… in the late ‘80’s. Since then, it’s been going pretty strong thanks to Emma Lake Fiddle camp and other fiddle camps around.”
Compositions, Recordings and Musical Philosophy
Throughout his career, Arcand has arranged a number of traditional Metis fiddle tunes and has composed over 340 original tunes. Many of Arcand’s own compositions can be found inside his music book Some of My Original Tunes, which can be purchased at his website.
Most, if not all, of Arcand’s compositions have been recorded over the years. Some of his old recordings, which were once available for purchase on cassette, include:
- La Celebration ’92– 1992
- The Tunes of the Red River– 1998
- Sugar Hill Road– 1999
- Whoa-Ha-Gee– 2000
- Celebrating Tradition– 2003
- Original and Traditional– 2004
- Thru the Years– 2005
Arcand’s more recent recordings, which can be purchased at his website, include:
- Echoes of the Prairie– 1994/2002
- Vicki and Me… and some of our favorites– 2005
- Les Michif– 2006
- Meeyashin– 2007
- Traditionally Yours– 2008
- Dedications– 2009
- A Tribute to Andy DeJarlis– 2011
Arcand, contrary to those fiddlers who regard speed and technical prowess to be of paramount importance, puts great stock in musicality and emotive playing. He maintains that, although it is tempting for technically-skilled fiddlers to rip through reels and jigs as quickly as possible, violinists that allow themselves to slow down can “put more into the piece”. Arcand’s musical philosophy shines through in his recordings and performances.
John Arcand, along with fiddler Calvin Vollrath, founded the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp, Canada’s first fiddle camp, and taught at the camp for many years until its dissolution. In addition to Arcand and Vollrath, some other notable instructors who taught at the Emma Lake Fiddle Camp include Richard Wood, a famous Maritime Fiddler, and Patti Kusturok Lamoreux, a renowned Old Time Fiddler from Winnipeg.
In 1998, Arcand founded the John Arcand Fiddle Fest, an annual fiddle, music and dance workshop that takes place at his acreage “Windy Acres” just south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, throughout the second week of August. Since the introduction of a Cultural Camp in 2013, the Fiddle Fest also offers interactive courses in Metis crafts and storytelling.
Every year, Arcand teaches at The Hills Are Alive Cultural Festival– a four-day Metis fiddle, dance, guitar, drum, rawhide-working and Michif workshop that takes place in mid-June- located just outside Elkwater, Alberta, in the Cypress Hills.
John Arcand is not only a respected musician and composer but also an accomplished luthier, or violin/fiddle maker, having created over two hundred instruments in his career. Occasionally, Arcand embellishes his instruments with unique and unorthodox signatures, such as a buffalo head in place of a scroll, i.e. the decoratively carved end of a violin.
Arcand is also an avid violin collector.
Honours and Awards
Over the years, Arcand has received a number of honours and awards for his contributions towards Metis and Canadian culture. Some of these honours and awards include:
- The National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts and Culture
- Being selected as one of twenty seven to represent Western Canada at the Fiddles of the World Conference in Halifax- 1999
- Being selected as a delegate at the Irish/Metis Cultural Exchange- 2001
- The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Grand Masters for his “Outstanding Contribution to Old Time Fiddling”- 2003
- The Lifetime Achievement Award in the Saskatchewan Arts Awards- 2004
- The Saskatchewan Centennial Medal- 2005
- Playing for the Queen at the Lieutenant Governor’s Centennial Gala in Saskatoon- 2005
- The City of Saskatoon’s Cultural Diversity and Race Relations “Living in Harmony” Award- 2006
- The Order of Canada (Canada’s highest civilian honour; presented by Governor General Michaelle Jean)- 2008
- The Queen’s Jubilee Medal- 2012
- The Canada Council Molson Prize- 2014