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Aboriginal Singer, Activist Willie Dunn Walks On

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Montreal-born Mi’kmaq singer-songwriter Willie Dunn, who often highlighted aboriginal issues in his work, walked on August 5 at the age of 71.

“I was really proud of him: proud of his musical ability and how much people seemed to look up to his lyrics and his poetry. A lot of it was very poignant for people dealing with the issues they were dealing with. He was one of the only people saying these things,” his son Lawrence Dunn told CBC Radio’s All in a Day.

One of the most poignant was The Ballad of Crowfoot, about the 19th-century Blackfoot chief.

“You are the leader, you are the chief. You stand against both liar and thief,” Dunn sings in the song.

The already powerful song was coupled with a montage of archival photos, newspaper clippings and videos to become one of the first movies created by the National Film Board’s First Nations unit in 1968.

Watch it at Be warned, if you haven’t seen it—it is quite moving and powerful

His son says the ballad is still meaningful today.

“I think he would appreciate some recognition for the issues he was trying to push forward. A lot of these issues are still something that we’re facing today. Like the recent Idle No More movement perfectly encompasses the song Crowfoot… everything he says applies to this day,” Lawrence told CBC Radio.

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Dunn’s widow, Liz Moore, called him a “go-getter.” She told CBC Radio that he taught himself how to play the guitar.

“He was the kind of guy who would always try something… He was passionate in life,” she said.

But Dunn wasn’t just a protest singer. He toured and released music in other genres including country and traditional aboriginal, as well as creating scores for theater and film. Honors during his lifetime include being inducted into the Aboriginal Walk of Honour in Edmonton and earning a lifetime achievement prize at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in 2005.

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Willie Dunn's handprints on the Aboriginal Walk of Honour in Edmonton.

Watch Dunn sing a poem his father wrote between 1920 and 1925 on CBC’s Songs of Man. Dunn tells the host that when his father wrote the poem he was “a hobo at the time and he wrote a lot of songs.”

Dunn also sings a song he wrote called “The Tears Still Fall Within My Mind,” showing his versatility.