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Musical sharing initiative is up in the air following cancellation of the Applied Music Program

In late November, Mohawk College announced the suspension of the Applied Music Program. 

The Music program is a place where students can learn how to advance their skills and collaborate with other musicians.  

But the suspension impacts more than just students.  

“They [the college] talk about being open and they talk about the combining of cultures and bringing international students in, yet they take away one of the main structures that is creating the openness of combination of cultures and inclusivity,” Broadcasting- Television and Communications Media student Ally Situm said.  

Two men sitting beside each other drumming on a hand drum.
Rick McLean (l) is the Initiatives Indigenous Advisor who is drumming beside Bob Shields (r) at Gage Park Diner.

The Musical Sharing Initiative exists because of music instructor Bob Shields and is facilitated through the Applied Music program.  

It mainly takes place in room F-157 where students meet with Indigenous artists to make music and learn about their culture.                                                           

This year the Initiative welcomed Nicole Joy-Fraser and Joe Dowling-Shawana, to share their Anishinaabe teachings with students.                                                                    

Shields spent more than ten years working towards this collaborative project that incorporates creativity and well-being.                                                                       

 “There’s not a lot of equitable space for the way people learn and use their cultural creative practices for their wellbeing,” Shields said. “To learn about themselves, learn about their identity, their place in the world, their worldview, all those kinds of things.”  

The initiative intertwines cultural teachings from Indigenous artists, with music created by a variety of talents.                                                                                              

Dowling-Shawana and Joy-Fraser brought in different artifacts including drums and rattles that have meanings and stories to go along with them. 

Men sitting around a drum drumming with women standing behind them using hand drums.
Each session began with a talking circle where people shared something about themselves.

“My teachings, anybody can use this,” Dowling-Shawana said to the students. “We all have mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional [aspects]. We’re all blessed with those four things, and we have to be grateful that we’re experiencing this human life in that way.”  

The sessions are run differently from how college classes are usually taught. Instead of Joy-Fraser and Dowling-Shawana standing at the front of the classroom, everyone sat in a circle. Nobody in front, nobody behind, but all beside each other. 

“When communicating, there is a dialogue that harmonizes people,” Shields said. “It’s not like a linear system, it’s through words, it’s through music, it’s through wordless music.” 

Whether or not you identify as a musician, every person plays an essential role in music sharing. 

People sitting in a room playing different instuments.
Joe Dowling-Shawana also brought his girlfriend Shyann Jenkins (r) who is Cayuga Turtle Clan from Six Nations and shared her teachings with the students.

“I think I’ve been able to show them that we all have a story of where we come from and my hope is that your story is uniquely your own,” Joy-Fraser said. 

This is the second year that Joy-Fraser has been a part of the initiative. 

“Being asked into a space to share whatever I would like is really empowering,” Joy-Fraser said. 

Students from many different programs have taken part in the initiative, including students from TV Broadcasting, Photography, Graphic Design, Journalism and Psychology. 

“The most valuable thing that I think that I’ve learned is the freedom of connection when you’re in a safe space,” Situm said. “And in that freedom of connection, it doesn’t have to be verbal. You can see what happens when everybody feels safe to be fully themselves and contribute together.”  

Vocalist Mary Pickford (l) helped to create lyrics for a song that will be performed on the event day.

In addition to the students, teachers from Mohawk College were also present. 

“Whenever I went in and I sat in my chair, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Psychology professor Carla Labella said. “It was an incredible experience whatever did unfold in that session.” 

Shields describes the Musical Sharing Initiative as an unconditioned space that forms trust between people while maintaining a dignity of difference.  

“The initiative is about equity and diversion, inclusion, access, human rights, Indigenous rights, environmental rights and communication,” Shields said. 

Without a strict lesson plan, each session allows people to come together and learn from each other through storytelling. 

“We do have a responsibility to take part in initiatives like this and to learn from our Indigenous neighbours,” Labella said. 

In the process, music is made. From vocalists to guitarists to rattle shakers, everyone contributes to the greater whole. 

“In theory, if we had a bigger room, we could fit an audience who could just come in and enjoy the show,” guitarist Malcom Munoz-Saravia said. “But in reality, they would be learning.” 

Following the suspension of the Applied Music program, it is unclear how the initiative could continue. 

But Shields said he hopes this is not the end. 

“Why should something that’s doing so much good work for such a diverse group of people, something with such social capacity cease to be supported in the future?” Shields asked. 

Many students shared the same concern following the suspension of the program in November. 

“It is such a shame,” Situm said. “This initiative has been one of the most life-changing opportunities that I have ever gone through and that I have seen help change people’s lives and for it to be shut down based on money is extremely disappointing.” 

Is it possible for programs to benefit Mohawk College without the primary focus being on how much money each one brings to the college? 

“Maybe Journalism, Music, General Arts and Sciences can’t contribute financially to the same level as Business, but we can sure contribute socially,” Shields said. “We can’t keep reducing everything to a marketable product and economic sustainability.” 

The Musical Sharing Initiative is a way for people to learn about Reconciliation and directly apply that inside the college. 

“When you’re talking about human rights, Indigenous rights, and Reconciliation, we know that it’s not a one-and-done deal,” Shields said. “It’s always a work in progress.” 


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