John Kim Bell, OC, OOnt, conductor, administrator, pianist, composer (born 8 October 1952 in Kahnawá:ke, QC). Bell is an advocate for Indigenous Peoples, an entrepreneur, fundraiser, and a composer and conductor. He is the first Indigenous person to conduct a major symphony orchestra. Additionally, he established the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (now Indspire) and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (now Indspire Awards). He has received many awards and honours in recognition of his cultural leadership, advocacy, and commitment to Indigenous relations.
Early Life and Career
As a child, John Kim Bell moved with his family to Columbus, Ohio. There he began piano. Later, he studied violin and saxophone. At Ohio State University he studied with George Haddad. Bell became a conductor of Broadway musicals and for touring productions. He was the conductor for the international company of A Chorus Line (1978–80). In 1980–81, he was the apprentice conductor with Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony. He made his public debut with the orchestra on 5 May 1981. Following the 1980–81 season, he studied in Siena, Italy, with Franco Ferrara. Bell then returned to New York. While in New York, he served as conductor for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Eglevsky Ballet, and a number of Broadway shows and operatic productions.
In 1984, CBC released a documentary on Bell’s musical career, John Kim Bell: The First North American Indian Conductor. After the documentary aired, hundreds of Indigenous artists contacted Bell asking for his help. This prompted him to research Indigenous art programs. He discovered there were no real programs for young Indigenous artists. As a result, he decided to devote his energies to arts education and promotion for Indigenous people. In 1985, he established the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (CNAF). This foundation worked to increase awareness of the artistic opportunities for, and to develop the talent of, Indigenous people through education. The foundation held a benefit concert at Roy Thomson Hall on 8 February 1987. The concert featured Bernadette Peters, Shania Twain and Don Ross. Bell produced and, with Miklos Massey and Daniel Foley, composed the score for the contemporary Indigenous ballet In the Land of Spirits. The ballet was performed at the National Arts Centre in 1988. In addition to providing grants and scholarships from the proceeds of such events, the CNAF organized a tour of Ontario reserve schools by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble in 1987. It also sent Don Ross to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988. In the 1990s, Bell renamed the CNAF the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and expanded its programs. He also launched the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in 1993. He designed, executive produced and directed the annual show. The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and Awards are now known as Indspire and the Indspire Awards.
Bell’s work for the CNAF curtailed his musical activities. However, he conducted the orchestra of the National Ballet of Canada in 1986 and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London in 1987. He also appeared at the Ontario Place Forum and in a joint benefit concert with the Toronto Symphony in 1991. He has composed scores for the PBS TV movie The Trial of Standing Bear, and for the Baton Broadcasting TV film Divided Loyalties. In 1989, he was featured on the CTV show People to People. Bell organized a national tour of In the Land of Spirits, which he conducted, in 1992. An adaptation of the music was recorded in 2000 by True North Brass (Opening Day Recordings 9320). In 1992 and 1994, he conducted the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the CBC Orchestra, the Vancouver Opera and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Orchestra. In 2009, he returned to the podium, conducting a symphony orchestra at the launch concert for the Planet IndigenUs Festival at the Harbourfront Centre.
Executive and Administrative Work
From 1988 to 2005, Bell was president of management company Ariontha Inc. In 2005, he founded Bell & Bernard Limited (with John Bernard of Donna Cona). Bell & Bernard Limited is a research and consulting firm that specializes in relations between First Nations, corporations and governments. In 2009, he helped establish Enbridge’s School Plus Program, which supports extracurricular activities and enrichment programming in First Nations schools. He was senior advisor of Aboriginal Affairs to Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners. In 2011, during his time there, the company donated about 100 acres of land in New York to the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge.
Bell has been a member of several boards, including the CBC, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, the Aboriginal Human Resource Development Council of Canada, the Canadian Institute for Health Research, the Federal Task Force on Professional Training in the Cultural Sector, and Toronto's 2008 Olympic bid. He also served as a patron and Jury Chair Arts for Indigenous Arts and Stories, a writing and visual arts competition for youth of Indigenous descent.
Awards and Honours
- Honorary D Mus (Lakehead University) 1990
- Honorary LLD (Trent University) 1992
- Honorary LLD (Mount Allison University) 1994
- Honorary LLD (University of Alberta) 1999
- Honorary LLD (University of Toronto) 1999
- Member of the Order of Canada (1990); Officer of the Order of Canada (1997)
- Member of the Order of Ontario (2003)
- Royal Bank Award for Canadian Achievement (1998)
- Canadian Conference of the Arts Keith Kelly Award for Cultural Leadership (2002)
- Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award (2010)
- Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts - Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2023)