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The Journal’s Exceptional Person of the Week: Mike Stevens

Cathy Dobson Something happened to harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens 23 years ago that changed the reason he plays music.
Mike Stevens. (Larry Towell photo)

Cathy Dobson

Something happened to harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens 23 years ago that changed the reason he plays music.

On his way to entertain peacekeepers in Bosnia, he stopped in Labrador and was offered a ride to visit Sheshatshiu, a tiny Innu community with the country’s highest suicide rate.

That afternoon, he nervously met with a dozen or so Sheshatshiu teens who listened to him talk about music but rarely removed the plastic bags full of gasoline from their mouths. They were impoverished, bored, seemingly unable to engage with anything but gas fumes.

Mike talked to them, then took his harmonica out and played “Amazing Grace,” and kept on talking. Slowly eye contact was made and the plastic bags came away from their mouths. Mike offered to send harmonicas to their school.

That 45-minute encounter launched a remarkable program called ArtsCan Circle that has provided instruments to isolated northern communities for more than two decades. Mike has developed a special relationship with many of them. He’s watched as youths engaged with music and learned to dream of a better future.

Not only is Mike an award-winning musician, songwriter and author, he’s an exceptional humanitarian whose ArtsCan Circle is making a meaningful difference in Canada.  Twelve years ago, he also established an American version called Healing Through Music and Dance.

“I saw the inequality and it was so wrong,” he says about why he wanted to engage the kids in Sheshatshiu and many, many others like them. “I saw the kindness, the humility and how smart they are, and I had a moment when I just thought something has to be done.”

Mike, who grew up in Sarnia and still lives here, was among the first to alert Canadians to the plight of northern youth. 

“I really woke people up about gas sniffing,” he said. “I am happy there is a groundswell of awareness now. Opportunities for better lives and better education are finally coming for them.

“What I’m most happy about are the individuals I know in these communities who are graduating as doctors, teachers, paramedics, firefighters.

“They’ve been disadvantaged for so long and now their voices are being heard more.”

In the early days, Mike was on his own, stopping in isolated communities, playing his music, and distributing free instruments.

But his vision and drive for change soon created a team of volunteers and two ArtsCan employees who raise funds, ship instruments, and arrange for numerous musicians to rotate from village to village.

“It’s really incredible,” he said. “And it’s not about me. It’s about communities and that makes me really happy.”

Mike continues to be deeply involved with ArtsCan, but he also has a lot on the go musically.  In fact, 2023 is shaping up to be a banner year.  This week, he’s preparing for a March 18 Toronto show followed by an Alaska tour.

He is nominated for Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Awards, which takes place April 1 in Vancouver. 

And his most recent album titled “Breathe in the World, Breathe out Music” included a single called Livin’ in Sarnia accompanied by a funky video showcasing his hometown.  The album is selling well and has been in the top 50 of the Canadian Roots Music charts since it was released in May.

Always the innovator, Mike has also been invited to write music for a film being shot in Mongolia that involves a challenging river paddle. 

“Some traditional paddlers want to collaborate with me and it’s going to be pretty wild,” he said.

Filming has started on yet another project about Mike being made by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Michelle Valberg. “I guess I’m odd enough that Michelle thinks she can make a film about me,” he laughed.

On top of all this, an anonymous donor has provided enough money to pay renowned guitar builder Grit Laskin to make a guitar with inlay that depicts the story of ArtsCan.  On its neck there’s a reproduction of Lambton County photographer Larry Towell’s photo of Mike. The anonymous donation is big enough to also send an indigenous guitar maker to luthier school.

At 65, Mike Stevens is celebrating an exceptional year, made even sweeter by the fact he successfully battled back from a bout with long Covid last year.

“I think poor health was a wake up call for me,” he said.  “It showed me you never really know what’s in store for you. 

“It’s given me the juice to take on all of this unbelievably great stuff."

If you want to nominate someone for The Journal’s Exceptional Person of the Week, send their name and the reason for the nomination to [email protected].

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