Mary Lou Smoke was surprised enough to learn she was being inducted into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame. But she never could have imagined the text she received on her way to accept her Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I had a message from Buffy St. Marie congratulating me, saying she was really happy I was being recognized for my work in the community. I was just blown away. I don’t even know how she got my phone number.”
Smoke was inspired by the Canadian folk icon early in her singing career, prompting her mother to buy her a guitar, lessons and a Buffy St. Marie songbook.
“I still have that songbook,” Smoke said, noting she “gained strength from singing Buffy’s music,” singing St. Marie’s protest songs throughout the ‘70s as part of the Red Power movement, and the resurgence of Native activism in Canada.
“Before then, we just walked around with our heads hung low. The Native American movement came to be and we began paying attention to what was happening in the Dakotas. We started singing those songs and we started standing up again. We were proud,” Smoke explained.
Smoke has been singing since she was a young girl growing up in Batchawana Bay, north of Sault Ste. Marie, on the sparkling eastern shore of Lake Superior. After moving to Toronto with her family, she studied music under record producer and CBC music programming director Art Snider.
“I was the only female entertainer singing and playing guitar in the Toronto area. There were maybe five or six men, but I was the only woman doing it professionally.”
In 1976, she performed at the Olympic Summer Games at the sailing/yachting races in Kingston before moving to London a year later with Dan, her husband, and co-host of the CHRW newsmagazine program, Smoke Signals. The multi-award-winning show is Canada’s longest-running Indigenous radio program.
The Smokes are also adjunct professors in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry’s Interfaculty Program in Public Health and co-created of the First Nations Issues in News Media course in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. They also teach a course on Indigenous spirituality at Brescia University College.
A member of the Ojibway Nation, Mary Lou has taught many women to sing the traditional First Nation Songs of Ceremony and founded the women’s drumming group, Ogitchitaw Kwewog. “Translated to English, it means, ‘Warrior Women.’ It doesn’t mean we walk around with big sticks, it means we stand up for the people. Warriors have big hearts, and they go out of their way to make peace happen.”
She also uses music to educate people about respecting and preserving the environment.
“When Dan and I are out in the community, I often teach people The Water Song. Last year, we were on way to Toronto on World Water Day and a teacher contacted us with something she wanted us to hear. We pulled up our computer on the train, and 350 elementary students had all gathered to sing The Water Song. It was awesome. I know my work is kind of behind the scenes and low-key, but it’s getting results.”
Smoke accepted her Forest City London Music Lifetime Achievement Award at The Aeolian Hall last Sunday at an opening gala kick-off for London Music Week. She and Dan will perform this coming Sunday as part of a free wrap-up gala at the London Music Hall.