How the Fiddle Flows
directed by Gregory Coyes
(Streaming Fiddles/National Film Board, 2002)

It was the fur trade that led the charge in the European incursion into northern and western Canada and, as the word "trade" implies, at least in the beginning the relationship was considered mutually beneficial. Two rival companies fought over the shares of the trade for many years before merging (not just a recent business phenomenon, apparently). The Hudson Bay Co. traded through that icy northern body of water, depending on hardy Scots workmen, while the Northwest Co. relied on French-Canadian voyagers traveling up the Great Lakes waterway and into the west.

Both Scots and French brought their fiddling traditions to North America with them, and the fiddles were readily adopted and adapted by the First Nations peoples, along with the guns and other metal tools that were the staples of the trade. In the historic development of Canada, the fiddle and the fur trade go together like the paddle and canoe.

This I know personally, because I have had the pleasure of being pushed and flung with wild abandon by giggling Cree women across more than one dance hall in northwestern Ontario. We jumped and thumped our feet to the skirling rhythms of a Cree fiddler whose musical roots indeed went back hundreds of years to the beginnings of the fur trade out of Hudson Bay. I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing most of the time, but the fiddle was entrancing and we danced like people possessed in an old Quebecois legend until we were puffing red in the face, dripping sweat and our legs quivered with exhaustion

Another sign of the mutuality of the early fur trade were "les enfants d'amour," the "children of love," between the French or Scots workers and the First Nations women who helped them survive in this strange and rigorous land. Those children, who grew up between two very different -- and often opposing -- cultures, eventually formed a new culture of their own. They became the Metis (pronounced May-tee) people of the northern plains, buffalo hunters and trappers -- and often the best of the fiddlers.

In How the Fiddle Flows, Metis filmmaker Gregory Coyes traces the history and development of Metis fiddling and stepdancing -- now undergoing a renaissance like so many other indigenous cultural practices around the world. With entrancing pastoral and wilderness scenes, and lots of examples of local fiddlers and dancers, Coyes traces the evolution of this music throught the Quebec and Hudson Bay routes, which eventually come together in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the Metis horse and buffalo-hunting culture developed more fully. Two attempts by the Metis to establish their own nation state there in the 1800s were swiftly crushed by the new nation of Canada, and Metis leader Louis Riel was hanged as a traitor.

From Winnipeg, Coyes follows Metis fiddling through settlements west across the northern plains through Saskatchewan to Edmonton, Alberta, where the film ends just before the Rocky Mountains -- although the story clearly goes on.

Metis fiddling is roots music at its rootsiest, a true folk culture that is so grounded in a unique people who have kept a strong identity even while living -- marginalized -- in the midst of a more dominant culture (not unlike the Roma or Gypsies of Europe) that they didn't even think of giving their music a special name until a few years ago -- it was just what they did.

Coyes does both the music and the people who love it justice, following them with a quiet respect, and allowing them to tell their own stories in their own ways and with their own cadences. We hear the origins of the "Red River Jig," the most famous of Metis tunes, and listen in fascination to one elder fiddler talks of his people stringing their fiddles with sinews stripped from the backs of moose. Through it all are the beautiful images of canoes and rapids and prairie sunsets along the Saskatchewan River, the weathered faces of proud, gentle people and the fierce, wild call of the fiddle that ties them all together.

I love this film. It captures a unique piece of Canadian cultural history whose story has gone unchronicled for far too long.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 11 September 2004