Indigenous youth singer following her dream at Voices of the North

Youth performer Dream Merasty (right) with her grandmother Frances Merasty at rehearsal for the annual Voices of the North showcase in Prince Albert on Wednesday night. -- Photo by Jessica Gies

Jessica Gies

Daily Herald Contributor

After blowing away showcase organizers with her initial audition, youth performer Dream Merasty was ready for her Voices of the North debut this weekend.

The 15-year-old singer from Pelican Narrows has performed with keyboard accompaniment before, but at rehearsal Wednesday night she was quickly adapting to having the house band behind her.

“I’m pretty confident,” she said of how she felt heading into the event, held at the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre.

The country music artist began performing at the tender age of four after her grandmother Frances Merasty taught her to sing. Dream first learned a Cree gospel song called Kichitwa-Marie – which means “St. Mary” in English, according to Frances.

“She’d just copy me when I’d sing,” said the grandmother. Even though Dream did not understand Cree, she was able to mimic her grandmother with ease.

“I was so amazed,” said Frances, who admits it’s harder to sing in Cree than in English.

Now, after more than a decade performing in front of people, Dream is becoming a veteran singer, even competing onstage in her hometown and previous talent shows in Prince Albert.

One song on her set list is Die of a Broken Heart by Carolyn Dawn Johnson.

“And there’s a story to that too,” said Frances, whose son Jordan Ballantyne was murdered in Prince Albert six years ago. Frances described that after the tragedy, she was on the couch grieving when Dream she came to sit with her.

Frances remembers saying, “My girl, I’m going to die of a broken heart,” as she held her hands to her chest.

“She looked at me (and said), ‘Hey granny, I got a song for you. It’s called Die of a Broken Heart.’ So that’s where she got that song from.”

“It’s been really, really rough,” Frances said about losing her son, adding that Dream is the driving force that keeps her going.
Another sure crowd pleaser at this year’s showcase is the Northern Prairie Dancers, a group of square dancers based in Prince Albert.

Among them is Ashla Michel, a choreographer and longtime member.

“Growing up I (saw) a lot of square dancing back home,” said Michel, who hails from Pelican Narrows. Michel said she loves the opportunity the group provides her to travel around the province, teaching youth in various communities the dancing traditions.
Brandi Nelson, a dancer from Green Lake, said jigging is a big part of her home community culture.

“It gives you excitement, you know,” she said. “You get energy from the crowd. You get energy form each other. It’s a very healing dance.”

Showcase back better than ever after Covid rebound

This year’s Voices of the North showcase features a performance by the Northern Prairie Dancers. (Left to right) Timothy Linklater, Brandi Nelson, Roberta Ballantyne, Jocelyn Linklater, Ashla Michel, Brennan Linklater. — Photo by Jessica Gies.

After being forced to modify the VOTN format for the past few years due to Covid concerns, nothing is holding the show back now, according to LJ Tyson, co-producer and creative director of the show.

“I think the feeling this year is that we truly are back full force and our Voices of the North family is back together and stronger than ever,” he said.

Tyson sees Prince Albert and northern Saskatchewan as a “hotspot” for indigenous talent, adding that audiences are often surprised at the caliber of performances showcased. What some may have considered an underdog program in the past, VOTN has now become an “important, integral part of the Prince Albert Winter Festival,” he said.

“I think people are finally opening their eyes as to how important this show is to have in this city.” It’s a great feeling to have the hard work recognized and for the indigenous performers to viewed in a positive light, he added.

“I think that kind of feels like a pat on the back almost.”

Tyson is proud of both the returning talents and fresh faces performing this year.

“It’s great to get to see old friends, and see how their artistry has developed,” he said.

For younger artists including Dream, Tyson sees VOTN as a springboard capable of catapulting musical careers by exposing talents on stage.

Tyson has watched his mother and co-producer Sheryl Kimbley bring what he called a “warrior spirit” to producing the show this year.

“She just seems more energized than ever to make the best show possible,” he said, adding that Kimbley is “very passionate” about bringing indigenous talent the forefront.

The past year has been a bit of a battle for her and others involved because of a string of losses, leading to tributes for longtime volunteer Cynthia Sanderson, sound and lighting crew member Gary Ostafichuk and auditions host Clara Beatty.

Kimbley said she is grateful to all the performers who have travelled long distances to take part in this year’s program, as well as the many people who continually support VOTN.

“They’re very talented and they’re committed,” she said.

Tonight’s show begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre with tickets available at the door. A cabaret event will follow to wrap up this weekend’s showcase.