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Musician Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk, wearing the colourful woven sash that’s a hallmark of Métis culture, thinks disputes over cultural appropriation could one day end up in court. Photo: Ian Patterson.
Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk. Photo by Ian Patterson

An Indigenous Musician Turns to the Law

First-year student Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk is interested in how cultural appropriation affects Aboriginal artists

A versatile artist who loves fusing contemporary musical styles with Métis folk traditions, Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk has performed as part of the Métis Fiddler Quartet (with his three siblings) across Canada and around the world, including at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Now at U of T’s Faculty of Law, he says he can envision himself doing legal and justice work that supports Indigenous people. He’s keen to get involved with Aboriginal Legal Services, the U of T–affiliated centre that provides free legal services to low-income Indigenous people living in Toronto.

The growing debate over cultural appropriation interests him too, and he expects that some of the questions being raised about what stories can be told by whom could eventually make their way into the court system. “Certain authors and artists who have no Indigenous connections whatsoever” – he avoids referencing them by name – “usually see justice served to them by the community in terms of the feedback they get,” he says. “But I think there will be some legal ramifications to all the debate that’s going on right now. Whether there’s an actual career to be made from exploring these issues isn’t something I’m familiar with yet. That’s part of the process of learning that I’ll be doing at U of T.”

However he uses his legal degree, Delbaere-Sawchuk, 29, says he wants to “pay it forward” and honour the people who’ve helped him throughout his career – as well as the generations that came before him. At a recent performance at a high school in midtown Toronto, he gave a shout-out to Louis Riel, the famous leader of the Métis people and a distant relation of Delbaere-Sawchuk’s. “Louis Riel shaped much of what we know of Canada,” he told the kids assembled in the gym. “Inclusivity, the right to religion, the right to French language. This history, as far away as it might seem to you, is a big part of our lives.”

Watch Delbaere-Sawchuk performing “Through the Woodlands” with his three siblings:

Carol Toller is a Toronto-based writer and editor.

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