Mohawk musician, composer, conductor, producer, social activist and energy executive John Kim Bell has been honoured in the past for his accomplishments in individual fields but he has never been recognized for his entire body of work. However, that will change this year as he will be getting a lifetime achievement award at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards.
“It’s nice that it’s coming from the Aboriginal people. I have already won every single award possible in the mainstream, but it’s nice to get recognition from your own people,” said Bell.
Bell will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards in a live presentation airing November 5 on APTN. The Winnipeg awards show actually has Bell a bit nervous. Though he has conducted world-class symphony orchestras as well as worked on Broadway productions featuring major celebrities, he has never done live television in his lifetime.
Born in 1952 in Kahnawake, Bell has had a lengthy career in many fields but he began with music, playing piano on television for the first time at the age of 10. He described the experience as the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him, until he wound up at 18 conducting on Broadway for productions that featured such major movie stars as Gene Kelly, Vincent Price and Lauren Bacall.
“I conducted a production of Chorus Line, which in that era was the hottest musical ever on Broadway. While I was doing this at a ripe, young age, I was blown away to be working with movie stars, live on stage,” said Bell.
From there Bell was appointed as a conductor to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first Aboriginal in Canada to accomplish such a feat.
With a savvy for business and a desire to see Canada’s Aboriginal peoples in the limelight, Bell decided he would take out a personal loan to produce his first fundraising concert in 1984 for the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation which he also founded. He hired Bernadette Peters to star in the show and not only garnered enough profit to get the foundation of the ground but running the show landed Bell an invitation to join CBC’s board. Starring alongside Peters was a then-unknown Shania Twain who Bell later cast in her first Broadway show.
His own achievement awards also took on a different meaning as the awards show served not only to recognize Aboriginal accomplishment but the funds it raised went to granting scholarships to Aboriginals all over Canada. Today over 4000 Aboriginals have been to university as the result of Bell’s “little” dream.
After getting the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards off the ground, Bell moved on to create and produce Canada’s only Native ballet, In the Land of Spirits, in 1989, raising the capital from industry for both the production and for the subsequent tour in the 1990s. Not only did Bell raise the funds for the production singlehandedly, he actually turned a profit.
Since then, Bell has established the Blueprint for the Future career fair series, one of the largest of its kind in the country that promotes career awareness for Aboriginal youth. He later on became an energy executive for Brookfield Renewable Power and has since lobbied the Ontario government to establish a $250 million First Nations loan guarantee program.
His latest achievement, which was made through a proposal that Bell made to Ontario, will now see First Nations that want to buy into an energy project without the means to do so receive commercial loan guarantee and get a loan to buy a piece of equity and then pay the loan off. First Nations that participate in this program will now see decades of revenue for their communities.
Bell said throughout his career he has been laughed at and told he would never accomplish what he has done, but every project he has undertaken has turned a profit. Beyond that, all of his accomplishments were done through raising half of the capital through corporations and the other half through government, something that had never been done before in Canada.
Having jumpstarted the careers of many Aboriginal artists and with a list of accomplishments so long that it’s hard to include them all, Bell is beaming with pride but still modest about what he has achieved.
“I can look back on the record of my life and feel good about the fact that when the cup was passed to me, I picked it up and made a contribution. I did what I could,” he said.