'Okay, you've done your two arrest shots," jokes John Kim Bell, unleashing a merry laugh.
The Globe photographer has been asking him to try various relaxed poses for his shot. Bell complies, but his off-the-cuff asides provide the best portrait of all.
As he leans across the sound engineer's console in a recording studio in Toronto's CBC building, palms flat, arms straight, he mutters, "But officer, I was only going 40." When asked to casually clasp his hands behind his head in a seated position, he quips: "I didn't do anything, honest."
"Open your jacket maybe," suggests the photographer as he checks the composition in his viewfinder.
Bell looks down at his clothes: a dark pin-striped suit, a shirt with an open collar, no tie. He unbuttons his jacket as instructed and throws the photographer an impish grin. "You know," he deadpans. "On my reserve, you're dressed up if you have your two front teeth."
An attending publicist groans in dismay.
There, in a nutshell, is the reason Bell is both admired and shunned in his efforts to help Canadian aboriginals. His credentials are impressive. An exemplar of achievement, he is Canada's first aboriginal symphony-orchestra conductor and the founder and president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, a charity that promotes educational opportunities for young native Canadians. The foundation celebrates its 10th anniversary next Friday with a gala performance at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The event will be broadcast on CBC-TV on April 7.
But Bell is willing to be politically incorrect, and that causes some to view him skeptically. That Bell is a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que., makes his humour even harder to swallow.
An aboriginal who is successful making fun of brethren who aren't so fortunate? Trade that pinstripe suit for a flak jacket.
"Oh sure, the leaders [of the Assembly of First Nations]say I'm elitist," he happily admits.
He has publicly sparred with AFN's chief, Matthew Coon Come, on various issues, he offers. "What I have observed over the years, and have been outspoken about, is that the entire effort in the aboriginal community has been political, arguing for collective rights, for example. There's this idea that attaining financial compensation would solve the problems in our community, but I don't think that's true. The aboriginal communities get billions of dollars a year from the federal government, and the [AFN]leadership always says it's not enough. When you look at the history of the world, you see that a community has to decide for itself to progress and that until then, they won't."
That last comment -- a thin philosophical tendril spun out over a vast and frequently horrific set of problems -- is typical of Bell. He is professorial in tone, high-brow, detached. The solution to problems aboriginals face, he believes, is not more hand-outs but "social and economic integration" with mainstream Canada, which can only be accomplished through education. He speaks with the authority of someone who intimately knows the problems, someone who has experienced hardship.
But he hasn't, not really, and that makes him more of a target. The product of a mixed marriage, which in itself is not unusual -- as Bell points out, "there are very few 100-per-cent genetically pure native people" -- he didn't grow up on a reserve.
His father was Don Eagle, "the most famous Indian in the world," Bell says. Eagle was a wrestler and became the World Heavyweight Champion in the late forties. Impoverished as a youth, suffering from rickets, he was a steel worker on high-rise buildings, as many Mohawk were, before turning to wrestling.
Don Eagle was a big, handsome man, who wore a Prairie headdress for effect. According to Bell, he became "America's No. 1 TV attraction" in the early fifties, starred on The Tonight Show monthly, and golfed regularly with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Buddy Hackett.
Bell's mother, Beth Hamilton Bell, was a fifth-generation American, college-educated and a journalist, who had her own radio program in the U.S. She wanted to meet the charismatic Don Eagle. So she arranged an interview. Six weeks later, they eloped.
Her parents were aghast. She moved to Canada, where she lived on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve. But the marriage, which produced two sons, lasted only two years. Don Eagle's passion for life included many girlfriends. He went on to marry two more times. "He wasn't much of a father," Bell says. "He never supported us." After the divorce, Bell and his younger brother returned to the U.S. with their mother, living with her parents in Columbus, Ohio.
During the summers, the Bell brothers would return to the reserve. "In the summers, we would get beat up by all the Mohawk cousins for being outsiders, and during the school year in Columbus, a very white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant community, we would get beat up for being Indians," Bell says with another mirthful laugh. "It was a learning experience," he adds ruefully. Their reserve was civilized and "a nice place," he says, compared to some in the Canadian North. Still, his grandparents protected him and his brother, Kevin Bell, now a Toronto lawyer working on native issues with the Ontario government, and prevented them from engaging socially in the community. The boys were aware of violence, alcoholism and suicide, but always from a distance. That's how they learned of their father's tragic demise. When he was 40, Don Eagle was shot and killed on his reserve.
In their mother's care, they enjoyed a comfortable American upbringing. "I'm glad I grew up where I did," Bell says, adding he doubts he would have had the same opportunities otherwise. She introduced them at an early age to classical music. Bell remembers attending a symphony concert in Columbus when he was 3 and being overwhelmed by experience.
A precocious child, it seems, Bell says he demanded piano lessons when he was eight years old, then violin, then saxophone lessons. At 10, he was playing the piano on local televised talent shows. By 18, he was on Broadway, working with the stars of the day, including Gene Kelly, Vincent Price and Lauren Bacall.
In 1980, he was in Toronto, as show conductor, with the international company of A Chorus Line. The musicians in the pit were mainly from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. "They felt I had the potential to be a real conductor," Bell says. They approached Andrew Davis, then music director of the TSO, and encouraged him to take the young conductor under his wing. Following an audition, Davis appointed Bell apprentice conductor of the TSO. "I became a Ripleys believe-it-or-not story and I was discovered by the aboriginal community," he says.
As part of his education, he attended the Academia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna, Italy, a formal institution where they wore suits to class. That experience led to a stint as apprentice to Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic, where Bell encountered the legendary conductor, Leonard Bernstein. But a social conscience interrupted what could have developed into a career as an international conductor. The juxtaposition between the formal, privileged world of symphonic music and the "unfortunate circumstances" on reserves that Bell visited as the famous Canadian aboriginal provoked what he calls "my first real identity crisis. I had to ask myself, 'Are you native? And how are you native? And what are you going to do to make a difference?' "
His response, in 1985, was to found The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. Since its inception, the organization has awarded more than $14-million in scholarships to students enrolled in all areas of education. In the past year alone, it has allocated a record $2-million. The Foundation also holds a series of career fairs.
"When I started to do this, I had people tell me not to do it. 'You're a talented musician,' they said. 'Believe it or not, there are other aboriginal organizations around, and they'll butcher you.' But I was determined. And my greatest thrill is because everyone thought it couldn't happen."
In February, Finance Minister John Manley announced a $12-million endowment fund for the foundation's scholarship programs. In addition to recognition of their success from the public sector, the foundation receives generous donations from corporate Canada, Bell points out.
In 1993, to help mark the United Nations' International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, Bell decided to mount the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, commemorating successful natives. "By showing this cadre of diverse and talented people, we show that it exists and give other native people permission to do the same," he explains. "Usually, there's such a limited, negative view about aboriginal people, all about suicide, poverty and unfortunate circumstances. There are always people in our communities doing well, but you never hear about it."
In the past 10 years, award recipients have included, among others, athletes such as NHL hockey player Bryan Trottier, and Olympic medalist Alwyn Morris; kidney-transplant specialist Dr. Martin Gale McLoughlin; and novelist and playwright Tomson Highway.
Bell is a forceful, at times egotistical, character. Dissonance, in the aboriginal community at least, doesn't bother him. He plays his tune, despite what others say. "There are people in our community who believe we are meant to live a subsistence life, you know, hunting and growing," he says with a look of disdain and incredulity. "Every chief has a cellphone," he continues.
Nobody argues that we shouldn't use them. But to say that we should train our kids to build them and sell them, well, that's called elitist.
"They see me as a pariah," the 50-year-old adds gleefully.