In 2019, James Campbell, Artistic Director of the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada, introduced Jodi Contin to Ken MacDonald and invited them to visit ten schools for the Festival’s “Music Scores” outreach program. He confidently made an unlikely pairing of the Indigenous hand drum with the French horn and gave them only the instruction, “I know you two will make it work.”

In those sessions, Jodi and Ken invited children to tell their own stories through music and art. By way of example, Jodi wrote a song for an Ojibwe Horse at Ken’s farm named Asemaa’kwe. They developed a short presentation about this little horse and the so-called “Indian Ponies” that were once numerous around Wasauksing and other First Nations as helpers and spirit animals. Jodi and Ken told this story at the 2019 Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storyteller’s Festival, incorporating artwork by Anishinaabe artist and breed expert Rhonda Snow, and the audience was enchanted.

This encouraged Jodi, Ken, and Rhonda to invite composers Kevin Lau and Andrew Balfour on board to create a production for full orchestra entitled “The Spirit Horse Returns”. The Festival of the Sound hosted the entire group to workshop the piece in the summer of 2021. This included bringing a pair of Ojibwe Horses to an encampment outside the Stockey Centre, where they grazed, walked the nearby trails, and visited Wasauksing for the first time in nearly fifty years since the last horses were mysteriously extirpated.

The work was premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2022 and has been greeted enthusiastically by audiences of the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the Stratford Symphony, and has been booked by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and others. It has also been re-orchestrated by Kevin Lau for chamber ensemble.

It is unique to have a production that is equally at home on an orchestra’s mainstage evening series as on family and educational series, yet “The Spirit Horse Returns” resonates with audiences of all ages with its combination of gentle humour, adventure, and a narrative about the power in reconciliation when we care for the land and each other.

Our Journey on the Spirit Horse
By Ken MacDonald, co-creator, “The Spirit Horse Returns”

In 2017, my husband Trevor and I started our journey as Ojibwe Horse caretakers when we welcomed a beautiful two-year-old filly named Asemaa’kwe to our farm. (When referring to Ojibwe Horses, the term “caretaker” is used instead of “owner” to honour the breed’s history of living freely among Indigenous peoples.) Despite having no prior knowledge of the breed, our friend Louise May from Aurora Farm informed us about the critically-endangered horses coming to Manitoba and in need of homes. She assisted us and a few others in becoming caretakers at the same time.

As a classically-trained horn player, I had been working since 2008 as a Teaching Artist through Canada’s National Arts Centre Arts Alive Program along with composer Andrew Balfour. Together, we had travelled to various First Nations and rural areas across Manitoba performing and storytelling residencies. This gave us time to talk about our backgrounds – my eleventh-generation settler origins and his Cree roots – at the same time as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its own work. I felt that perhaps working with these horses could be part our family’s own contribution to reconciliation.

Trevor and I became active members of the Ojibwe Horse Society, working with other caretakers to ensure the future of this unique horse breed, which is the only one in North America to be developed by Indigenous peoples. We also became responsible for maintaining the breed registry and archives, which held a wealth of information that was later used in the script for “The Spirit Horse Returns”.

After receiving Asemaa’kwe and then other Ojibwe Horses, Trevor and I had many conversations with Rhonda Snow, one of the leading Anishinaabe caretakers of the Ojibwe Horses. Rhonda has been recognized with a lifetime achievement award from Rare Breeds Canada for her tireless efforts to preserve the breed and understand its traditional role in Indigenous life. Maybe because our conversations were always so focused on horses, we were surprised after several years to discover that Rhonda is also an exceptional visual artist!

Andrew and I started to incorporate Rhonda’s artwork plus stories of Asemaa’kwe and the Ojibwe Horses into our workshop. This brought immediate appeal, and also invited participants to understand the historic and spiritual significance of these horses. Rhonda also came on board as a National Arts Centre teaching artist as well. Our workshops were designed to show learners that they could share their own life stories and feelings using stories, art, and music – and to model Indigenous and non-Indigenous artistic collaboration.

In 2019, I was invited by James Campbell, Artistic Director of The Festival of the Sound, to bring these workshops to schools in Parry Sound as part of their Music Scores program. He introduced me to Ojibwe singer and drummer Jodi Contin, and we shared stories about the Ojibwe Horses that traditionally roamed the land in the area. This inspired Jodi to write a beautiful “Song for Asemaa’kwe” that we incorporated into our workshops. It became clear to us that these stories and knowledge of the horses was not well-known and deserved a wider audience.

Jodi arranged for Rhonda and I to be invited back to Parry Sound, this time to lead electrifying sessions in the Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival. This time we actually brought a pair of Ojibwe Horses to Parry Sound’s Stockey Centre for attendees to meet in person.

Rhonda Snow, Ken MacDonald and Jodi Contin presenting the workshop that led to the creation of “The Spirit Horse Returns”

Our successful workshops gave us the confidence to produce a concert experience that would bring together artists of diverse backgrounds to address truth and reconciliation themes through the lens of the Ojibwe Horses. Thanks to the support from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, our project found its legs.

We offered tobacco to Elders Dan Thomas and Alison Cox to help guide us, and went on to consult other Knowledge Keepers and breed experts through the Ojibwe Horse Society and beyond. We are immensely grateful for all the support the work has received.

During the summer of 2021, our creative team, including Jodi, Rhonda, Andrew, composer Kevin Lau, and me, were hosted by the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound for a week of script and musical score development for “The Spirit Horse Returns.” Thanks to TJ Stables, we were able to bring a pair of Ojibwe Horses to Wasauksing First Nation, where Elders shared stories of the last time Ojibwe Horses were seen there, possibly in the late 1950s. Our week concluded with an outdoor workshop performance of the show to which the whole community of Wasauksing was invited. It was powerful and emotional for all of us to share the first read-through of our script as Kevin and Andrew played through their rough composers’ sketches, with the horses grazing peacefully alongside us. This historic visit was documented on film and the community’s celebration is showcased in the exciting finale of our show.

Around the campfire each night, in the magical presence of the Ojibwe Horses, our team of artists shared personal and profound experiences and views about truth and reconciliation. These meaningful exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists sparked the story, music, and artwork ideas for our show. We now extend an invitation to audiences to join us around that crackling fire to experience the beauty that is there for all of us when “The Spirit Horse Returns.”

Jodi Contin walking Tatonka and Animikii in Parry Sound, with Ken and friends
Jodi Contin walking Tatonka and Animikii in Parry Sound, with Ken and friends
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra premiere performance


KEN MACDONALD Performer, writer, artistic manager

Acclaimed as a “French horn master” by the Toronto Star, Ken MacDonald has performed in every province with a variety of Canada’s top ensembles. He is currently Associate Principal horn with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, having played principal horn with the Hamilton Philharmonic (for seventeen seasons), Symphony Nova Scotia, and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. He has also performed as a guest artist with the Vancouver Symphony, the Canadian Opera Company, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Orchestra London, the Victoria Symphony, and the Regina Symphony, to name but a few.

As a chamber musician, Ken has enjoyed longstanding associations with the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ontario, and with the national touring ensemble Octagon, who were featured in Winnipeg’s Virtuosi Concerts last season. Solo appearances include the Winnipeg Symphony, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, and national CBC broadcasts of newly- commissioned works.

Ken is a National Arts Centre teaching artist and, in co-operation with the Winnipeg Symphony, has travelled to several of Manitoba’s northern communities for educational workshops with composer and conductor Andrew Balfour. He also teaches at the University of Manitoba. He lives just outside Winnipeg with his husband, two children, six goats, five horses, and a variable number of chickens and turkeys.

JODI CONTIN – Performer, Composer, Knowledge Keeper

Jodi Contin is a highly energetic Anishinaabe Kwe who hails from Wasauksing First Nation.

Jodi’s Anishinabek roots and cultural ethical principles shine through in everything she does. Drumming and singing are activities close to her heart, and she is a renowned drum-maker as well. She has been a part of the Grand Medicine Society and is a devoted Sun dancer for many years, where she is now the lead female dancer, sweat conductor and clan mother of the lodge.

Empowering and lifting up others are just some of the ways she holds space to encourage people to find their path to healing. Caregiving comes naturally to Jodi. She has worked with families in a variety of capacities as a Child Protection worker and Family support worker. Through those roles and her volunteer work, she has earned the trust of many. Currently, she is the Band Representative for Henvey Inlet First Nation.

In 2018 Jodi participated in the original Festival of the Sound production “Sounding Thunder”, for which she wrote the lead song “Wasauksing Enydaayong”. Since then, Jodi has travelled to various venues across Ontario to perform the work. She was recently elected to the Board of Directors for the Festival of the Sound.

As a mother to three sons, family and community are incredibly important to Jodi. She is a respected member of her home community and regional Anishinabek communities along with the Town of Parry Sound. She has been nominated for the Order of Parry Sound for the work she puts in towards community and cultural events.

This Anishinaabe Kwe has a lot of stories to share about her own journey, many of which also come with a great sense of humour!

RHONDA SNOW – Visual artist, Ojibwe Horse Breed Expert

Anishinaabe artist Rhonda Snow is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Rare Breeds Canada for her tireless work preserving the Ojibwe Horse breed. Her vivid Woodlands style canvases captivate viewers and share the knowledge she has gained from the Elders about the “small horses of the big woods”. She has personally cared for over 60 Ojibwe Horses, playing an important role in the comeback of the breed from near-extinction.

Rhonda is currently working intensively with breeders to help establish educational and equine assisted learning programs that feature the Ojibwe Horses. She is also actively researching the history of the breed, interviewing elders and knowledge keepers to collect stories of how Indigenous peoples related to horses both before and after contact with Europeans.

KEVIN LAU – Composer

Composer Kevin Lau’s music has been performed by groups such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Against the Grain Theatre, and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. He is the composer of two ballets, Le Petit Prince and Dark Angels, both choreographed by Guillaume Côté (National Ballet of Canada. His music is featured on several commercially released albums, including the JUNO nominated “Spin Cycle.”


Of Cree descent (from Fisher River First Nation), Andrew Balfour is an innovative composer/conductor/singer/sound designer with a large body of choral, instrumental, electro-acoustic and orchestral works, including Take the Indian (a vocal reflection on missing children), Empire Étrange: The Death of Louis RielBawajigaywin (Vision Quest) and Manitou Sky, an orchestral tone poem. His new Indigenous opera, Mishaboozʼs Realm, was commissioned by LʼAtelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and Highlands Opera Workshop.

He is also the founder and Artistic Director of the innovative, 14-member vocal group Dead of Winter, now in its 22nd year of offering a concert series in Winnipeg. Through this position, Andrew has specialized in creating “concept concerts” with Indigenous subject matter and collaborators. These innovative offerings explore a theme through an eclectic array of music, including new works, arrangements and innovative inter-genre and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Andrew is passionate about music education and outreach, particularly in northern communities and in inner-city where he has worked on behalf of the National Arts Centre, Camerata Nova, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and various school divisions for over ten years. In 2007 Andrew received the Mayor of Winnipegʼs Making a Mark Award, sponsored by the Winnipeg Arts Council to recognize the most promising midcareer artist in the City.

Andrew has also worked and collaborated with many of Canada’s leading Indigenous musicians, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jeremy Dutcher and Cris Derksen, to name but a few. In 2021 Andrew co-lead the Indigenous Classical Music summit at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

More recently he has returned from a national tour of his album Nagamo, commissioned and performed by the Vancouver-based vocal ensemble musica intima and nominated for a 2023 Juno award.


DAN THOMAS, Sagkeeng / Traverse Bay – As a ceremonial leader in the Indigenous community Dan conducts Midewiwin ceremonies and an Ojibwe Sundance. He has conducted sweatlodge ceremonies for 35 years. He carries a Little Boy Water Drum and sits with a Grandfather Waterdrum.

Dan is one of two Elders in Residence for Seven Oaks School Division. He descends from grandparents from Sagkeeng Anishinaabe Nation and Traverse Bay Metis Community.

Dan worked as a teacher, as a Consultant for Manitoba Education, and a Specialist for Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center. He is currently an Elder instructor for the University of Winnipeg Masters in Indigenous Governance – Pathways to Indigenous Wisdom and the UWinnipeg Faculty of Education. He is also an Elder in Residence at the University of Winnipeg Aboriginal Student Centre. He has authored a number of documents, videos and other educational materials for the province of Manitoba and for First Nations.

ALLISON COX – Alison is of the Anishinabe Ikwe Bear & Eagle Clan, Midi-win-win Society, Red Robe Drum Society, and the Okii ji da Ikwe Society

NORMAN JORDAN, Lac La Croix First Nation – Norman is an Elder of Lac La Croix First Nation and a knowledge keeper and caretaker of the Ojibwe Horses.

SKUYA FASTHORSE, Lac La Croix First Nation – Skyua is a knowledge keeper and caretaker of the Ojibwe Horses.

DOUG CUTHAND, Little Pine First Nation – Doug is an independent film producer, director, writer and journalist. His work frequently has been recognized and honoured by the media industry. Weekly columns in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and Regina Leader Post, and features in the Winnipeg Free Press have made Mr. Cuthand a respected voice for the aboriginal community. The Spirit Horse Returns is grateful to Doug for sharing many generations of horse nation culture and teachings, especially those of his father, Stan Cuthand. From interpreting for Elders and chiefs in meeting with Indian Affairs in his early days, chairing the school committee in Lac la Ronge in the 1940s, to approaching City Hall on behalf of the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in 1970, to participating in roundtables for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1992-93, Stan’s advocacy spanned decades and bridged and bridged cultural and language barriers.

ANITA CHECHOK (Jiigibiikwe), Wasauksing First Nation – Anita, along with her husband Vince, ran Rez91, Wasauksing First Nations’ community radio station, which for over 20 years was recognized for providing information on cultural and other events, music with a focus on Indigenous artists and information in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language). Their regular program — Anishnaabembda Noongo (Let’s speak Anishinaabemowin today) — helped beginners learn some basic Anishinaabemowin words and phrases.

WABISHKI-ANAANG, Sagkeeng First Nation – an ancestral caretaker of Ojibwe Horses, Wabishki-anaang has given traditional names to Ojibwe Horses and is the owner of Pride Dragons apparel and accessories.