It’s not every night an industry award show becomes a near-revolutionary political statement without anyone even taking the mic to make a speech but this year’s Polaris Music Prize has, incredibly, done just that. Jeremy Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa won the coveted $50,000 Canadian music award last night at Toronto’s Carlu, and though it’s yet another bang-on choice from the jury of industry folks, it’s a much larger victory for the preservation of this country’s Indigenous culture. Dutcher’s album sets 100-year-old folk songs sung in the rapidly disappearing Wolastoqiyik language to swelling, operatic orchestral music. It’s not just a personally fulfilling art project, it’s a museum of traditions that would have been lost, yet can now live forever in bytes, on wax, and on disc. As Dutcher said in his joyous acceptance speech, “Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance,” and awarding material wealth and recognition to artists championing that renaissance might be the most objective good the Polaris Prize has ever done.
It’s an appropriate end to maybe the most punk Polaris Gala in history. Okay, that’s a bit of an general overstatement but tonight’s show distinguished itself through a looseness that’s been absent in years prior. Hubert Lenoir channeling anarchic Roxy Music swagger and screaming “Fuck your American Dream!”, Jean-Michel Blais’ techno-classical recital, a stunning, acapella US Girls set; when the hard-rocking, unironically shredding Partner are your most grounded performers, things have gotten weird. It’s welcome, especially as more diverse identities are recognized as contributing to the Canadian musical identity. You could argue that the wildness of those performances was partially a result of that initiative. See how much more interesting this country is when it’s not just defined by its indie and folk rock?
Also important was that Dutcher was one of two Indigenous nominees, as Vancouver rap duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids scored a spot on the shortlist for their bristling and booming 2017 project The Average Savage. Both it and Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa reject colonialism, as Dutcher specifically said during one of the Polaris livecast Q&As that his album was about “unashamed indigeneity” and featured “no Euro-Western form” in its music. This is objectively nuts stuff to think about from a music history perspective—a performer reclaiming North American music as non-Western in form—but that’s a much bigger topic for a bigger, nerdier piece (as if this wasn’t dweeby enough already). With this win, the future of Canadian music is looking pretty sharp right now.