Buffy Sainte-Marie, wearing a shining dress and long necklace, was led on the stage by a group of Indigenous people in traditional regalia after she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
Her iconic dark hair and fringe hung long as she told the crowd about the importance of artists from remote communities.
“Most especially in the whole wide world, I’d like to acknowledge all the grassroots Indian artists who haven’t yet taken home a Juno, but who continue, as they have in the past, to capture our hearts at powwows across Canada, doing that magic which music does so well,” Sainte-Marie said to applause.
Those words now ring hollow for some Indigenous musicians after a recent CBC News report raised doubts about the singer’s ancestry.
Some musicians say they were disappointed to learn they may have lost career-shaping industry awards to someone who may be neither Indigenous nor Canadian. They say it amounted to lost opportunities at critical times in their careers.
"Juno winners have toured the country and the world, and the runners-up get to play the neighbourhood pubs and occasional summer festival,” said Billy Joe Green, an Anishinaabe rock and blues musician who was a nominee for Indigenous Music Album of the Year in 2009 when Sainte-Marie took home the honour.
“Resentful? I can't afford that luxury.”
Sainte-Marie has received numerous Junos, the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize in 2015 and a Polaris heritage award for her 1964 debut album "It’s My Way!," among a slew of other honours.
The story of her birth, childhood and identity has shifted throughout her six-decade career, with her identifying as Algonquin and Mi’kmaq before saying she was Cree, adopted from a mother in Saskatchewan.
However, CBC located her birth certificate, which says Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 in Stoneham, Mass. The document lists the baby and parents as white and includes a signature of an attending physician. CBC said Sainte-Marie’s marriage certificate, a life insurance policy, the United States census and interviews with family members corroborate the information on the birth certificate.
Sainte-Marie, 82, said in a statement the day before CBC's story ran that she doesn't know who her birth parents are or where she's from, but called herself "a proud member of the Native community with deep roots in Canada."
While Sainte-Marie’s career was skyrocketing in the 1960s, Green was also trying to make it in music, never surrendering to "the day-to-day rejection, racism and to the many number of obstacles" that came his way.
A life’s work culminated with the Juno nomination for his album "First Law of the Land" in 2009. While Sainte-Marie took home the hardware and accolades, Green said his opportunities evaporated and he struggles to make a decent living despite playing better than he ever has.
"I've accepted 'life on life's terms' for the most part," Green said in an online message to The Canadian Press. "Yet, I'm still reflecting on this very unpleasant circumstance that confronts all who lost opportunities."
Karmen Omeasoo, who performs under the name HellnbacK, was nominated the same year as Sainte-Marie as part of the hip-hop group Team Rezofficial.
He first met Sainte-Marie as a child, with his mother explaining that she was an icon, so he understood losing to someone of her stature.
"If we get beat by her, who cares?" Omeasoo said in an interview. "If one of us wins, we all win. That’s what it felt like … I held onto that."
Now that feeling is gone. He thinks about all the Indigenous musicians who could have won and what it would have meant for their careers — recognition, radio play, touring opportunities, record sales.
"I’m feeling very duped. Like something was taken from me. Something was taken from all these other artists," he said.
Omeasoo said he can only speak for himself, not all Indigenous musicians. But, he said, the revelations have shaken him to his core. He imagines how meaningful it would have been to bring the Juno back to his First Nation in Maskwacis, Alta.
"I could have brought that hardware back home to my mom, my dad, my grandma, my kids."
He continues to create with his wife, Lisa Muswagon, under the name The Resilience, but said it’s a constant battle to make music and provide for their children.
Chester Knight, who was nominated alongside Sainte-Marie in 1997, said his album "Freedom" should have won the Juno because his was actually an album for Indigenous people. The song “Love Me Strong” was "popular then and has grown to be even more popular now," he said.
There have been calls for the Junos to rescind Sainte-Marie’s awards. An emailed statement said the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Junos, is aware of doubts about Sainte-Marie's ancestry.
"We are processing the information presented and are consulting with our Indigenous Music Advisory Committee, other community members and key stakeholders," the statement said.
Knight, who is from Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan, said the Juno Awards mean a lot to the artists competing for them.
“It is unfair to my brother and sister artists who grow up in poverty and racism, and are somehow able to create something of emotional value like I did,” he said in an email.
“Artists have to raise a family and balance a music career and a job career to fuel the production of an album.”
Black Bear, a drum group from Manawan First Nation in Quebec, was nominated in the same category as Sainte-Marie for “Come and Get Your Love: The Tribe Session” in 2016. The group said in a message to The Canadian Press they "work and walk in truth and this includes being true to yourself, your family and friends."
"We certainly don’t know where to stand considering what (Sainte-Marie) has done for Indigenous artists and done to those same artists as well by taking away opportunities like Junos."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2023.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press