Canada Connects

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Canada Connects

Kathryn Cobbler, Teaching Artist, OrKidstra, Ottawa, Ontario; Jacquie McNulty, Site Manager, Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta (YONA) – Sistema, Edmonton; Karma Tomm, Director, Sistema Kingston, Ontario


As El Sistema-inspired programs, we value community. Over the years, programs of various shapes and sizes have sprung up across Canada, laying down roots in priority communities. Although each program is unique in how it strives to support the students and families it serves, we are united as El Sistema-inspired programs in our shared belief in the transformative power of music. We are also bound together in confronting issues that concern all Canadians—issues of income inequality, racism, and systemic oppression, to name a few.

Each country grapples with these issues, and Canada has its own flavor of systemic problems. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), launched in 2008, was a nationwide documentation process that gathered truth-telling testimonies from people affected by the government-run Residential Schools between 1831 and 1996. The TRC published a final report with 94 calls to action. Canada is now in a process of reconciliation wherein people—including those of us working within El Sistema-inspired programs—are reckoning with all the questions that come with unlearning racist ideas and ideologies in favor of more equitable ones. This process of decolonization is becoming an integral part of the Canadian psyche today. 

As in other countries around the world, the sudden and harsh realities of COVID-19 brought these issues into sharper focus for us in Canada. Lack of access to technology, the need for homework help, and the lack of healthy, accessible food were some of the major challenges our students faced. We were moved to reach out to one another and felt the need to convene as a network of Canadian El Sistema-Inspired programs, in order to grapple with the realities of our changing world and learn how we can do better together to support our communities individually. This national connection was something we had long desired, and this pandemic made it an inescapable necessity. We began to convene monthly over Zoom.

Carving out space in our days to connect has allowed us to envision and unpack what it means to develop citizen artistry in our students and to be in tune with and respond to the needs of our communities. This experience has taught us that the strength of our national body relies on the relationships we have built with one another. As we continue to nurture these connections, we will adapt to the needs of our national community.

The “magic” that has taken place as a result of our monthly zoom meetings is that as Canadian El Sistema-inspired programs, we have deepened our sense of unity. Space has been created for us to share, learn, and grow from each other’s experiences. These calls allowed us to share our challenges, successes, and not-so-successful endeavors in creating online programming for our students. We have created resources that will continue to make our programs stronger.

As an example, OrKidstra (Ottawa, Ontario) has expanded upon its existing professional development to invite teaching artists and arts educators across the country to participate in this season of engaging in online programming. To start, presenters from Sistema Toronto and Sistema Winnipeg shared their expertise and practical tools of engaging their students in musical and social development in the digital space. We look forward to building upon this engagement in the months ahead. We have also collectively begun to advocate for our programs on a national level, and we are seeking to develop anti-racist policies to better educate our field in racial literacy and hold our programs accountable.

Our participating organizations so far represent five provinces, and include Saint James Academy (Vancouver), Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta (YONA)-Sistema (Edmonton), CPO PhilKids (Calgary), Sistema Winnipeg, Sistema Toronto, OrKidstra (Ottawa), Sistema Kingston, and Sistema New Brunswick. These monthly meetings, and the “ensemble” that has formed as a result of them, have allowed us to look more broadly at the El Sistema-inspired movement across Canada as a whole, identifying its needs while still celebrating the beautiful identities of each region and its communities.

Looking toward the future, many of us see a new momentum building upon these relationships that will strengthen connections among programs across Canada. Several Canadian programs are already members of El Sistema USA, which certainly offers a wealth of resources and support. But some things we deal with are uniquely Canadian, including a different culture around fundraising and our own heightened response to racial and economic injustices. This leads us to consider whether the time is right to develop some kind of support structure and a unified voice for advocacy across our own nation. As funding resources tighten and we recognize that the needs of underserved youth are growing, we contemplate what a new normal might look like. Why not build it together?

Image features members from:

  • Sistema New Brunswick
  • Sistema Kingston
  • OrKidstra
  • Sistema Toronto
  • Encore! Sistema (Montreal)
  • Sistema Winnipeg
  • CPO Phil Kids
  • Bakerview Music
  • Sistema Huronia Music Academy

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