John Kim Bell

John Kim Bell. Conductor, administrator, pianist, composer, conductor, born Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) Reserve, near Montreal, 8 Oct 1952, to a Mohawk father and American mother; B MUS (Ohio State) 1976.
John Kim Bell. Conductor, administrator, pianist, composer, conductor, born Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) Reserve, near Montreal, 8 Oct 1952, to a Mohawk father and American mother; B MUS (Ohio State) 1976.

John Kim Bell

John Kim Bell. Conductor, administrator, pianist, composer, conductor, born Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) Reserve, near Montreal, 8 Oct 1952, to a Mohawk father and American mother; B MUS (Ohio State) 1976.

John Kim Bell is widely recognized as an advocate for Aboriginal peoples, an entrepreneur, and a fundraiser, as well as being a composer and conductor. The first person of Aboriginal heritage to conduct a symphony orchestra, he is particularly well known for having established the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (renamed the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 1997 and Indspire in 2012) and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. He has received many awards and honours in recognition of his cultural leadership, advocacy, and commitment to Aboriginal relations.

As a child, John Kim Bell was taken to Columbus, Ohio, where he began piano and, later, violin and saxophone studies. At Ohio State University he studied with George Haddad. Bell became a conductor for Broadway musicals and for touring productions, including the international company of Chorus Line (1978-80). Following a season in 1980-1 as the apprentice conductor with Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony (and his public debut with the orchestra on 5 May 1981), he studied in Siena, Italy, with Franco Ferrara. Bell then returned to New York where he served as conductor for the Harlem Dance Theatre, 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 Aboriginal artists contacted Bell, asking for his help. This prompted him to research Aboriginal art programs; upon discovering that there were no real programs for young Aboriginal artists, he decided to devote his energies to arts education and promotion for Aboriginal peoples. In 1985 he established the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (CNAF) to increase awareness of the artistic opportunities for, and to develop the potential talent of, Aboriginal people through education. The foundation held a benefit concert at Roy Thomson Hall on 8 Feb 1987 that featured the US performer Bernadette Peters, Aboriginal singer Eilleen Twain, and Aboriginal guitarist Don Ross. Bell produced and, with Miklos Massey and Daniel Foley, composed the score for the contemporary Aboriginal ballet In the Land of Spirits, which 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, and 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 1994, and produced the annual show, for which he also composed music.

Although his work for the CNAF curtailed his musical activities, Bell conducted the orchestra of the National Ballet of Canada in 1985 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 series 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) 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.

From 1988 to 2005 Bell was president of management company Ariontha Inc. In 2006 he founded Bell & Bernard Limited (with John Bernard of Donna Cona), a research and consulting firm which specializes in relations between First Nations, corporations, and governments. In 2009 he helped established the Enbridge School Plus Program, which supports extracurricular activities and enrichment programming in First Nations schools. He was Senior Advisor of Aboriginal Affairs to Brookfield Renewable Power when the company donated about 100 acres of land in New York to the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge in 2011.

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 has also sat on the jury for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, a writing and visual arts competition for youth of Aboriginal descent.

Awards and Honours

Honorary D MUS (Lakehead) 1990
Honorary LLD (Trent) 1992
Honorary LLD (Mount Allison) 1994
Honorary LLD (Alberta) 1999
Honorary LLD (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)


"Aboriginal youth: Talent untapped," Globe and Mail, 5 Feb 2002

Further Reading

  • Schulman, Michael. "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!" Bravo, Jan-Feb 1987

    "La mission du maestro," L'Actualité, May 1988

    Newman, Alex. "Dreaming a myth of creation," Performing Arts in Canada, vol 25, Dec 1988

    Chau, Evelyn. "Expanding opportunities for Native youth," Toronto Symphony, [issue no. 4] 1990-1

    "In the Land of Spirits (program)," Performance, 15 Oct 1992

    Burke, Marie. "Bell appointed to CBC board," Wind Speaker, Nov 1998

    Hampson, Sarah. "John Kim Bell: A talent for conducting heat," Globe and Mail, 22 March 2003

    Wright-McLeod, Brian. The Encyclopedia of Native Music (Tucson, Arizona 2005)