Acclaimed performer from Opaskwayak Cree Nation offers healing through music as community cases soar

An award-winning opera singer from a Manitoba First Nation hopes music can offer solace to her community as it faces an onslaught of COVID-19 cases and an outbreak at its personal care home.

“Music is medicine and it’s healing. That’s exactly what we need right now in Opaskwayak — and not only here,” said Rhonda Head, a mezzo-soprano performer from Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

“It’s happening all over the world, but it hit us hard. It hit us hard here in the past couple weeks.”

Head organized an online concert Monday evening called Music is Medicine, featuring appearances from several acclaimed Indigenous performers in addition to a performance of her own.

The event came as Opaskwayak Cree Nation — about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, near the Pas — confronts a surge in cases of COVID-19. On Friday, the community had an infection rate of 20 per cent, and all 28 residents of its personal care home had tested positive, as well as a third of its staff.

The community has brought in a swath of new rules to stop spread, including allowing only one person per household to leave for essential supplies and banning social gatherings.

“It’s surreal,” Head said Monday, in an interview on CBC Manitoba’s Up to Speed.

“Who would have thought the virus would come to our little tiny community in northern Canada?”

Head’s own aunt, Cecilia Head, was a resident of the Rod McGillivary Memorial Care Home in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and died of complications related to COVID-19 on Nov. 10. Her uncle, Walter, is also infected and in hospital.

She said the idea for the live streamed concert came when some community members contacted her online to ask if she’d be willing to do a performance — but she realized other musicians would want to help, too.

Head reached out to Grammy-nominated performers Northern Cree, Juno-winning Murray Porter, Manitoba fiddler Clint Dutiaume and several other performers.

“They immediately said yes,” Head said. “Our Indigenous musicians are so caring and loving and they immediately wanted to be part of the event.”

Head said she hoped the live streamed concert could connect people and help share healing, in the First Nation and beyond.

“Music moves people … whether it moves them to tears or to laughing, to clapping or [a] standing ovation or dancing,” she said.

“Music is so positive, and I’m really proud of all the artists that stepped up to that will be performing tonight to help our people.”