With the 2021 release of Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, more listeners are getting hip to the late First Nations singer-songwriter’s music. Dunn, who was of mixed Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish heritage, passed away in 2013 at the age of 71, after a decades-long career as a musician, poet, activist, politician, and filmmaker. (Not to mention serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.) His 10-minute film The Ballad of Crowfoot, released in 1968, is arguably Canada’s first music video. With such a pioneering achievement, and a prolific career, why isn’t Dunn more well-known?

That his music isn’t broadly recognized has been a profound loss to Canada’s musical culture. But make no mistake: Dunn’s oeuvre continues to highly influence Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians alike. Thankfully, for those who’ve yet to experience the breadth of Dunn’s artistic output, there’s an impressive body of work to explore. But how can we rectify the exclusion of the legendary Willie Dunn – who deserves to be recognized as an icon on par with any of Canada’s greatest folk singer-songwriters? Is reconciliation the answer?

Anishinaabe musician Raven Kanatakta, one-half of folk-rock duo Digging Roots, says that “reconciliation is borne out of the idea that the oppressor is supposed to make amends.” Even for Canadians who believe it was their ancestors and not themselves who were the oppressors, there is something to learn. “A lot of it is about how you deal with privilege,” Kanatakta says. “Most Canadians don’t know that there are more children being taken away today than at the height of the residential school system.” He says Dunn “wanted people to understand the history of Canada – the true history, not the kind of false colonial history they teach in schools, but the history that is actually real.”

These difficult truths were relayed in Dunn’s songs, and performed with kindness, and his compassion for all audiences. “Willie shared his music because he wanted the humanity in people to understand,” Kanatakta says. “He didn’t want to scold people, or reprimand people in any kind of way. He just wanted to sing the truth, and tell the truth, and let people with their own minds decide how they felt about those things.” Kanatakta says that another reason for Dunn’s compassion is that he tried to understand the mind of racists – as evidenced in his lyrics for “I Pity the Country.”

I pity the country
I pity the state
And the mind of a man
Who thrives on hate

To try to understand one’s oppressor is no easy task, and it’s for this and other reasons that Lucie Idlout, a folk-rock singer-songwriter from Iqaluit, admires Dunn –  whose music, she says, “speaks to people,” and whose example inspired her to believe she could also make music.

“He was a mentor for so many of us,” says Idlout. “The same way that Black people had soul music and they learned their way; we learned our way through Willie.” Idlout eventually became friends with Dunn. “He had such a gentleness about him, a kindness, and a love that he was willing to share with anyone, and he did that through his music too,” she says. She recalls his “wicked sense of humor” and laughs while remembering a live performance: “Once he was explaining how a particular song was written, and he demonstrated onstage how a bear moves.” Regarding his deep lyrics, she says, “As much as it could hurt, the music itself and the way he plays guitar is very playful.” This sentiment is shared by Kanatakta, who likens Dunn’s inimitable playing of the guitar – which Dunn regarded as his drum – to the sound of a train.

Unlike Kanatakta and Idlout, renowned singer-songwriter William Prince of Peguis First Nation never knew Dunn personally. Asked what word comes to mind when thinking of Dunn, Prince says “unsung,” before adding, “When you think of the definition of an unknown folk hero, I think of his music.” Prince admires Dunn for many reasons, including his perseverance, despite facing considerable obstacles as a First Nations songwriter. “To be successful,” Prince says, “it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard for the same, or less, recognition.” Reflecting on Dunn’s achievements, Prince says, “Knowing that he was out there gives me courage, gives me hope, and kind of allows me to carry the message forward.”

Prince wishes he had met Dunn, even if only once. “My closest knowledge of him is by proxy to my friend Raven Kanatakta,” says Prince. “If Raven was so affected by Willie, given the musician Raven is, Willie must have been an incredible person – because he rubbed off on Raven in a beautiful way.” One of the profound ways that Dunn influenced Kanatakta was by teaching him that music can be a powerful tool to deal with heavy issues. “When you’re playing music,” Kanatakta says, “you can’t have your ego involved, because it’s a roadblock. You have to be really open. Willie taught me that.” Kanatakta says it’s this openness that can facilitate personal transformation.

The opportunity for transformation is also available for the non-Indigenous, if Dunn’s music is listened to with open hearts and open minds, with egos cast aside. While it may be difficult, Dunn’s music can help listeners develop compassion (and not just empathy) by better understanding the brutal treatment of First Nations people. Only in facing the ugly truth of Canada’s history, and the systemic inequities which continue to exist, can privilege be recognized, and actions taken towards reconciliation. While it’s too late to make Dunn’s dream come true in his lifetime, Canadians can work together now for the sake of his legacy, the betterment of our musical culture, and by extension, Canada. Dunn, ever prescient, laid it all out in “Son of The Sun”:

I had a dream of my own accord
We laid to rest the gun and the sword
Buried the hatchet, buried the stake
Bowed to each other, peace to make