Life as a First Nations Person in Calgary’s Hardcore Punk Scene

Originally published September 15, 2015 on NOISEY.

One of a few feature pieces that I had done for the Vice magazine imprint, the story (initially unintentional) came at a time when First Nations issues became ever more prominent within the public consciousness as it coincided with the 2015 Mrs. Universe Pageant. 

Stories of the marginalized youth are ones that I empathize with strongly, and through my work, can be seen in various stories that I have done for multiple publications. My interview with Lefthand and Blackrabbit made a lasting impression among thousands of readers, and has catapulted Lefthand into being a prominent figure in the First Nations community throughout North America.

The 2015 Mrs. Universe pageant was more than just show, with Ashley Callingbull Burnham, of the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, being the first First Nations woman to win Mrs. Universe. And though numerous problems still continue to plague First Nations people, Callingbull’s success is indicative of the recent progress made in regards to First Nations relations: by winning the pageant, she’s brought to light various social and cultural issues about being a First Nations person, especially as a woman growing up on a reservation.

Callingbull isn’t the only one trying to make an impact. Not everyone can be Mrs. Universe, but there are other ways for one to garner empathy. Take hardcore for example, a community based off of political views, social views, and its DIY ethic. It’s a community that espouses a sort of in-your-face liberty, exclusive to those who look for it. For many Calgarians, especially for the youth, the punk and hardcore scene has been a staple of expression for years. It represents a haven where they can express themselves wholly without fear of discrimination or prejudice as well as act as the antithesis to Calgary’s conservatism. Yet, for Carlin Blackrabbit and Curtis Lefthand, the Calgary hardcore scene can, at times, be rather insular for reasons such as simply being part of a non-white minority, especially as being two of the few First Nations people being part of the scene. They’re not trying to point fingers, though, since a fair amount of the scene’s demographic is comprised of suburban, middle-class white people.

Lefthand, 23, of Blackfoot/Sioux descent, sees it as a lack of understanding, not just for the hardcore community, but also for Canadians in general. “It’s kind of embarrassing for people to be unaware of issues right in their backyard. These issues aren’t well presented in the media and not many people are willing to learn and study First Nations culture and its history,” he says. “[Before Callingbull], do you hear about a First Nations kid dying? Have you heard about the missing women? Barely. You have African-American issues on the news all the time; you hear shit happening in India, Nepal, China—these kids know all about that but nothing about us.” He scoffs. “They can’t interact with a First Nations person because ‘we don’t know much about you.’ It’s the lack of education.” “All they know are the labels they put on us,” Blackrabbit adds. “Free taxes; dental; our benefits plans; grants; schooling—oh, that makes it easy for us? What’s the percentage of students in Canada that are First Nations? Last time I checked it was 16 per cent that went into post secondary school.”

Currently, Lefthand is studying Business Administration-General Management at Mount Royal University (“I’m one of the lucky ones, I think”). Until he was 16, he spent much of his childhood living in Eden Valley, a reservation 110 kilometres away from Calgary, where he lives now. When I had first met with Lefthand—we met thrice over the course of three weeks—you could say he was rather intense. He has a gaunt, imposing figure, which is further complimented by his height, dwarfing me by a few feet. Blackrabbit, 23, is of Blackfoot descent, and though he is slightly younger than Lefthand he is just as imposing--albeit more amiable. The third interview was conducted jointly with Blackrabbit as it takes around two hours for him to drive from Siksika Nation to the café, where the interview took place; much of his time is spent at Siksika, where he works with First Nations youth at Siksika’s Residential Youth Wellness Centre. He doesn’t come to Calgary often.

“We get kids from all over the country,” he says about his job. “They’re traumatized. They’re angry. They blame us [the workers] for all their troubles.” Many of these kids are troubled youth, something that he empathizes with as he, too, had similar experiences as a child. “Drugs, violence, murder—it happens every day and it can happen every time. You get used to it.” Due to the lack of amenities available, outlets of expression such as the arts are few and far between. Blackrabbit laughs, “back in 2006 we had no internet—” “No. We had no internet,” Lefthand interrupts. “Well we had dial-up.” Blackrabbit chuckles. “CJSW, [Calgary’s community radio station], was a good outlet for me. That’s where you can hear shows happening through their advertisements. We never had access to downloading music or MySpace. Honestly, in the reserve, when you’re not doing anything you’re partying. A lot of these kids get into drugs and alcohol. There isn’t really a main outlet for them.” Lefthand recalls getting into drugs and partying at the age of 10. Back then, fights were commonplace in Eden Valley. He says people would fight each other—for fun—with socks wrapped around their fists. They would eventually resort to bareknuckle boxing. “Whatever happened to you physically, even if you got broken bones, just happened.”

Dealing with the death of a friend or a loved one was also a familiar sight. “Last summer, one of our friends drowned in a river,” Blackrabbit says. “This past year we’ve lost a lot of youth. I’ve lost six good friends.” A few days prior to the interview, Blackrabbit played a show near Lethbridge. A close friend of his got hit by a drunk driverand was then hospitalized. He sighs, his eyes fixated on his cup of coffee. “It’s a day-by-day thing. You can be hanging out with one of your best friends and the next thing you know you’re in the hospital or even dead.” For Lefthand and Blackrabbit, punk and hardcore were the only outlets they had to cope with the overwhelming amount of adversity beset upon them. Hardcore helped Lefthand deal with the death of his cousin and his father. “It’s kept me alive, out of trouble,” Blackrabbit says. “It’s what I looked forward to as a teenager; I wasn’t into sports.”

There aren’t many punk or hardcore shows, either. Blackrabbit has, for seven years now, tried to have a show at least once a month at Siksika as a way to give back to the community. “Without these shows I probably would have been caught up in getting in trouble with the law, maybe as a drug addict. So, I want to do this for the kids—expose these kids to something new because they’re always used to seeing the same old thing on the reserve, which isn’t good.”

Both Lefthand and Blackrabbit have been involved with the punk and hardcore scene in Calgary for some time. However, Lefthand says lately he hasn’t been involved as much as he would have liked as he is too preoccupied with other things going on his life, primarily school. He says one specific problem is the ability to fit in. “When I see newcomers—First Nations people coming to shows, there’s still this dividing line between them. Sometimes, at shows, people who have been in the scene for so long don’t bother to communicate with them. Maybe the promoter will talk to them but no one else will. I’ve seen him (Blackrabbit) at shows and I treated him the same way, unfortunately. I hated myself for doing that and I’ve learned to never do it again.”

“I’ve been on that side,” Blackrabbit says. “Those are my pals, my buddies, and there have been times where no one’s talked to you—you go to a show and you’re just standing there in the corner waiting for your favourite band to play and you just leave. We come out of the reservation for this. It takes me around an hour-and-a-half to get to Calgary. I’m not saying all white, middle-class people have it handed to them, but we’ll never experience going on vacations three times a year. Vacation, for us, is going to the city.” “The weight we, as First Nations people, carry in our community, federally, it’s tough to fit in and be a part of a lot of other communities and subcultures because of this sort of disconnect,” Lefthand remarks. “Being ignored hurts us severely because we’re already perceived so negatively by the Canadian community.”

“I just want people to know that we are travelling with whatever money we have left to see these shows…sometimes we have no money; there’s not a lot of employment on the reserve,” Blackrabbit says. “It’s just how passionate we are. We want to be there like everyone else. “A hardcore show is like Christmas morning and when we’re there it’s the biggest thing that’s happened to us for maybe a month.”