Singer Molly Johnson, entrepreneur John Kim Bell among GG Performing Arts laureates

By Cassandra Szklarski

Learning she’d been awarded Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts elicited two extreme emotions from jazz singer and philanthropist Molly Johnson.

On one hand, she says she was “gobsmacked” and “shocked” to be among those getting a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement.

Fellow laureates named Thursday morning include singer k.d. lang, soprano Rosemarie Landry, playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and choreographer James Kudelka.

On the other hand, Johnson says she was “a little annoyed” and it took her “a good month” to accept the honour.

“I went, ‘Achievement? What achievement?’ I’m still technically in the same spot I was in when I had a punk band called Alta Moda in the ‘80s,” Johnson says when reached at her home just outside Toronto ahead of the announcement.

“I’m a Canadian musician who survived the music business for over 40 years. And prior to that, I was a theatre kid with the Mirvishes and I can’t pay my rent. I can’t take my band to Europe without it tanking me financially.”

Johnson says she’s since come around to accept the accolade, but adds her career isn’t over yet.

Now 62, she points to upcoming performances in Paris this March and ongoing community work that includes her beloved artist-run Kensington Market Jazz Festival in downtown Toronto and an online Black history project she hopes can one day serve as a teacher’s aid.

She also continues to collect donations for her Kumbaya Foundation, which closed in 1995 but is still being mailed cheques that she forwards to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Johnson co-founded it in 1992 to raise funds and awareness for people living with HIV/AIDS, only wrapping it when she became pregnant. In that short time, she says it raised more than $4 million.

On March 8, she’s set to receive another honour, when the French government will bestow her with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Tudor Alexis, consul general of France in Toronto, says in an emailed statement that Johnson is a popular figure among jazz aficionados in France.

“Her concerts in Paris are generally sold out and French jazz radio stations regularly play her songs. It is hence fitting that my country rewards her for all these achievements in her hometown, Toronto.”

These days, Johnson is eager to look forward, noting the performing arts award comes as she feels “at the top of my game” and “in the best shape I’ve been in in decades.”

“It’s opened up all kinds of thoughts for me on `lifetime achievement,”’ adds Johnson.

“What happens with the rest of this life? What do I want to do? It definitely asked me that question.”

Other awards announced Thursday include the National Arts Centre Award – for extraordinary work in the past year – for actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee of the play and TV adaptation “Kim’s Convenience,” and the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts, which goes to Indigenous entrepreneur and fundraiser John Kim Bell.

Bell, born on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve near Montreal to a Mohawk father and an American mother, said he’s “very honoured and humbled” by the recognition as he recalled obstacles to founding the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now known as Indspire, and its companion awards show, which marks its 30th anniversary May 11 in Edmonton.

Bell began his career as a conductor of Broadway musicals in New York and in 1980 was made apprentice conductor of the Toronto Symphony, becoming the first person of Indigenous heritage to conduct a major orchestra, according to a biography with his awards citation.

Now business adviser and lead negotiator for Michipicoten First Nation on its mining and energy activity, Bell says a constant throughline in his diverse career has been a refusal to accept “No” for an answer.

“People don’t think we have the capabilities and the capacity, and they somehow look at us and think we’re inferior and not capable,” Bell says of Indigenous Peoples.

“But I always believed that it was possible. And I was willing to work incredibly hard. And I was willing to take risks by personally borrowing money to come up with these things.”

In 1984, he established the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now known as Indspire, “raising some $80 million and sending tens of thousands of Indigenous students to colleges and universities across Canada, the U.S. and Europe,” says the biography.

In 1988, he produced, directed, co-composed and conducted an Indigenous ballet, “In the Land of Spirits,” which premiered at the National Arts Centre and went on to tour the country.

All faced hurdles, he says.

“(I was told) ‘It’s not possible.’ ‘There are no native people in ballet.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘You’re not a producer, you’re not an impresario, you’ve never raised any money in your life,”’ Bell recalls.

“I was just really persevering, determined. I worked seven days a week, I worked at night, I borrowed money. And I was angry. I was angry at how our people were being treated. And I wanted to fight back.”

A gala celebration for the laureates is set for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on May 27.

Husband-and-wife film stars Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively are honorary chairs of the gala’s national committee of volunteers, which is raising the funds for the bash.

The Vancouver-born Reynolds received 2021’s National Arts Centre Award.