She may have been living in Norris Point on the island of Newfoundland for most of her life, but there is no question Shirley Montague is rooted in Labrador.
It shows up in her artistic expression and in how she lives her life in general.
The musician and cultural-program developer does not have to go out of her way to ensure her heritage is reflected in what she does.
She doesn’t include Labrador out of an obligation to ensure her heritage is preserved.
“I don’t think like that,” said Montague. “It’s not an effort. It just kind of happens through being inspired by where you come from and who you are. I don’t say, ‘I must do this for Labrador.’ It’s just something that happens.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of Montague’s first public musical performance in her hometown of North West River.
She doesn’t think Memorial University knew that when it decided to celebrate Montague’s contribution to life in Newfoundland and Labrador by presenting her with an honorary degree from Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook next month.
“It’s just a coincidence, but it’s a nice pat on the back,” she said. “I feel like a bit of an imposter, but I am very honoured to receive this award for a life’s work.”
Montague’s family history in Labrador dates back to European settlers in the mid-1800s and to Labrador’s Indigenous people for generations before that.
Most of the original music she composes and the traditional songs she performs relate to Labrador and its history in some way.
“It just seems innate in me to continue to incorporate Labrador’s story into my performances,” she said. “It just seems natural.”
She admits there have been times when she has orchestrated events to include Labrador. For instance, years ago, she assembled many of her relatives who play music at Montague family gatherings in order to record some of the traditional songs they perform for posterity.
She organized that recording because she realized there might come a day when some of that music will be lost. She’s glad she did that project because one of those musicians has since died and another has been incapacitated by a stroke.
In her island hometown of Norris Point, Montague’s name has become synonymous with the annual Trails, Tales and Tunes Festival, which she founded in 2007. While Montague has always emphasized the importance of local artists at the festival, she has been including events with a specific Labrador twist to them.
This year’s event will be “Spotlight on Labrador,” featuring a performance by Silver Wolf Band, an Indigenous folk-rock trio from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, at The Cat Stop on May 24.
The band’s bio says their music is “unabashedly Labradorian in content.”
It’s no wonder Montague chose them for the festival.
“Labrador is such a big part of this province and so little is known about it,” she said of including The Big Land in the festival. “It’s an opportunity to bring Labrador into people’s psyche and teach them a little bit and share a bit of the history and culture.”
For helping people to learn about and appreciate Labrador, and for adding to the province’s artistic and cultural warehouse while she’s at it, Montague will be presented with her honorary doctorate during Grenfell’s convocation ceremonies May 16.
Who is Shirley Montague?
- Born in North West River, Labrador, Shirley Montague began performing at the age of 15 and, after moving to Norris Point in the mid-1970s, continued to write, perform and produce music and to develop cultural programs.
- She has been called one of the most widely accomplished, recognized and respected figures in the provincial arts, music and cultural industries. Montague continues to celebrate and preserve the traditional music of Labrador.
- In 1988, she wrote original music for the “Ode to Labrador” and rearranged the lyrics to incorporate Inuktitut and Innu-aimun translations.
- In 1993, she produced the compilation “Our Labrador,” which includes folk songs in the three languages of Labrador. In 1999, in collaboration with Eric West, she produced “Gros Morne: A Musical Journey,” a haunting musical interpretation inspired by the culture and landscape of the national park.
In 2008, she led the “Remembering the Red Bay Basques” project, a compilation recording celebrating the 16th-century Basques whaling history. In 2014, Red Bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- An organizer as well as an artist, Montague spearheaded the creation of the Gros Morne Musicians in Residence program and is the founder and longtime artistic director of the Trails Tales Tunes Festival in Norris Point/Gros Morne National Park.
- She has served on many arts- and tourism-related committees and boards, including MusicNL, Factor and ArtsNL, to name a few. She also served with organizations such as the Provincial Women’s Institutes, Marble Mountain Development Corporation and the Judicial Council.
- Montague is a longstanding board member with Gros Morne Cooperating Association (GMCA) and was involved in the establishment of the office of Creative Gros Morne under the umbrella of GMCA.
- Montague has been recognized for her work with numerous awards, including Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador’s Cultural Tourism Award, Music NL’s Denis Parker Industry Builder Award, ECMA’s Stompin’ Tom Unsung Hero Award and the Historic Sites Manning Award.
- She was a major researcher and consultant for the 1996 study of the economic benefits of the sound recording industry in the province and has operated her own production company, Butter and Snow Productions.
Source: Grenfell Campus, Memorial University