Mike Stevens’ best audiences sniff gas.
Although playing for kids holding green garbage bags to their faces leaves the harmonica player with a migraine and his face burning from the fumes.
At the Atlin festival on Friday night, Stevens stopped chugging out his bluegrass rock long enough to tell the dancing crowd a sobering story.
Eight years ago, the Grand Ole Opry regular was on his way to Bosnia with a group of rock stars who’d been asked to play for the Canadian peacekeepers.
En route, their Hercules stopped to refuel in Goose Bay, Labrador, where the group played a show.
Stevens, who’d heard a little about the suicide rate and gas sniffing in the nearby Innu community of Sheshatshui, dedicated a song to its kids.
He got an icy response.
“It was too close to the bone,” he said.
After the show, a local offered to drive Stevens to Sheshatshui to see the community.
Although he wasn’t really supposed to leave, Stevens snuck away and jumped into the battered old pickup.
On the isolated dirt road, he kept seeing crosses.
“There were way too many,” he said.
Stuffed toys and plastic flowers hung from the makeshift roadside shrines.
When they got to the community, “it was as if we’d driven off the edge of Canada,” said Stevens.
“I’ve seen dead people,” was spray-painted across one of the buildings.
Walking around Sheshatshui, Stevens came across a mound of dirt covered in crosses.
“It was where kids were sniffing gas and the place burnt down — everybody inside died,” he said.
A dirt track, littered with ripped bags and reeking of gasoline led to an old stained mattress with a stick in the middle propping up a tarp.
It was where the sniffers crashed, he said.
“They’d end up looking after themselves,” he said.
“They are amazing kids, actually.
“The 13-year-olds would look after the 10-year-olds.”
Overwhelmed, Stevens headed to the school and played a concert for the kids.
“I wanted to do something,” he said.
“I didn’t want to leave there without a story.”
Bright and engaged, the kids were really into it.
So, after the show, Stevens promised to send them all harmonicas.
On his way out of the community, Stevens rounded a corner. “Right there, in front of me were eight kids with bags of gasoline to their faces beside a fire.”
His guide stopped the truck and told Stevens to “go do something.”
“I didn’t know whether they’d throw gas on me, or whether they’d tell me to get lost — I didn’t know.”
Stevens got out of the truck and began playing music for them.
“And that’s when it hit me, they were regular kids, they were just bored,” he said.
“And they’re bright kids, they’re just dealing with heavy issues.”
Stevens ended up playing for almost an hour.
“We talked about what it was like to sniff gas. We talked about my family and their families, normal things.”
At one point, the harps began to fall out of Stevens’ pocket.
“And the kids dove for them, so they wouldn’t hit the rocks — not what you picture of kids sniffing gas.”
CBC captured some footage of Stevens playing for the group of sniffers, and it aired nationally.
One thing led to another; Stevens gave out his phone number and e-mail on national radio during a rant about the shocking conditions, and by the time he was back from Bosnia, he was flooded with e-mail and calls.
He’d requested that people donate any unused instruments and within a few months, he had a transport full.
Stevens figured out a way to get it 1,000 kilometres up the gravel road to Sheshatshui.
“I wanted to get the instruments up there, hand them out and go do something,” he said.
Stevens followed the instruments north in his old Toyota car, with his banjo- and fiddle-playing friend Raymond McLean.
A buddy he met at the Grand Ole Opry, McLean was the only person Stevens thought was “solid enough” to go with him.
“And he was the only person I thought would do it for the right reason.
“I didn’t want it to be used as a photo op,” he said.
The trip destroyed Stevens’ car — $3,700 damage.
But it was worth it.
“We got there, went into the treatment centre and a lot of these kids are ADD or have fetal alcohol, so the attention spans are five to eight seconds.
“They’ll pick up a guitar, smash it into a wall, then hug you and tell you they love you.
“So there’s a complex amount of emotions happening.
“We put all the instruments in there and I just wanted the kids to go wild, grab something and make noise.
“We did that with all 80 kids at once and it was amazing — it was wonderful, explosive insane noise, it was really good music.”
On his own nickel, Stevens has gone to as many struggling communities as possible, loaded up with harmonicas.
“I’d fly into a community not knowing where I was going to sleep, with thousands of harmonicas and walk into the bush looking for kids who were sniffing gas,” he said.
Huffing gas make them howl, so it’s not hard to find them, he said.
Playing a fox-chase on his harp, Stevens would lure kids out of the dark woods.
“They’d come out laughing at me, and I’d hand them harmonicas and start a dialogue and make a connection with the kids,” he said.
“It’s not about making them play music, it’s about getting them inspired and letting them know they live somewhere beautiful.”
More than $25,000 later, Stevens has reached eight different communities and recently established ArtsCan Circle, bringing musicians together to create music in remote native communities.
The kids in these communities are used to do-gooders showing up to try and help, or to start a program, and then they never see them again, said Stevens.
And often, these short-lived programs have some moral or religious undertones.
Stevens took a different approach — keep coming back, keep promises and just play music.
And it has worked.
Trouble was, Stevens was growing more and more exhausted, and broke.
That’s where ArtsCan comes in.
“If I’m hit by a truck tomorrow, it will continue,” he said.
Sheshathui now has a recording studio, donated by a musical friend of Stevens. And when Pikangicum’s school burned down because of a gas-huffing accident, turning all the donated instruments to ashes, Stevens sent another load of them to the remote community.
“If every Canadian could just be in one of these communities for two minutes, we wouldn’t have these problems because people would want to help,” said Stevens.
“People are dying of curable disease there — TB, Hep. A and whooping cough, and people don’t have a clue — it’s in our own country.
“We brag about our human rights and how we treat people and we’re supposed to be an example and, man, our own backyard is screwed up.”
Steven and McLean are playing the Old Fire Hall tonight at 7:30. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and at Arts Underground.