Indigenous artist elevates community

Cole Forrest is working hard to express Indigenous culture in music and film

Cole Forrest is a media production and design student at George Brown College (GBC), but has been working to give a platform to indigenous voices in his community since high school.

His documentary, My Grandfather Was a Big Drum, highlights the perspectives, history, and future of Nipissing First Nation, where Forrest is from.

It is also about their perspectives on music, and how music affects them.

Forrest also spearheaded an Indigenous initiative called Ngamwag Shkinweg through Youth4Music, a part of the Canadian Coalition for Music Education. The name means “the youth are singing” in Ojibwe.

Forrest’s dedication to his community and art is clear, but he also notes that a film does not need to have Indigenous actors or themes to be an Indigenous film.

“Just because the actors in my film aren’t Indigenous, or the idea isn’t specifically Indigenous, that doesn’t mean that it’s not an Indigenous film,” he said.

That philosophy in particular helped him with his latest film, and his final project at GBC. The story is semi-autobiographical, about two high-school students whose friendship is going in different directions.

Attending GBC was the smartest solution, according to Forrest, with it being in the downtown core of Toronto.

He came to the city with his partner, also from Nipissing First Nation, who is in the dance program at GBC.

As an Indigenous artist, Forrest has confronted many stereotypes.

“Even in my own program I have experienced racism,” said Cole. “Someone pitches an idea with an indian shooting an arrow in a film in front of the class and nobody says anything.”

Cole said it upset him, but he didn’t know about how to deal with it in the moment so he internalized it and pretended it was okay.

Although Forrest experienced many challenges as an Indigenous artist in Ontario, he noted that it is not to the same extent as what other Indigenous people from other reserves face.

Forrest said he is fortunate to be from Nipissing First Nation, mentioning that although their drinking water is murky, he is privileged that it is drinkable.

“It’s historic and systemic, the trickle down effects of colonialism that affect my family, which has affected me,” he said.

Forrest also mentions that artists like himself are not being paid to educate people on his culture, yet seem to be often forced into the role of a historian or teacher.

“Use Google,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of trauma that comes with being an Indigenous artist, and these aren’t really easy topics to talk about within our art.”

Despite the challenges he has faced, Forrest is undeniably a multifaceted artist. He sings, plays hand drums, guitar, and piano, all on top of his film making skills.

He holds Ngamwag Shkinweg to bring Indigenous youth together to learn, connect, and lead one another through the power of music.

A large issue, however, is that programs like Ngamwag Shkinweg are not permanent.

Forrest’s program is funded through a bursary that is coming to a close. Although Forrest is making great strides in his work, more programs and funding is essential.

“If anything, that’s what indigenous kids need, a platform to express themselves, even if it’s just a guitar,” he said.

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Indigenous artist elevates community