John Kim Bell

2023 Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts

John Kim Bell is one of Canada’s most decorated Indigenous leaders. Widely recognized for his work as an activist, entrepreneur and fundraiser, he established the Indspire charitable organization and the Indspire Awards in celebration of Indigenous achievement. His creative vision, cultural leadership, inexhaustible energy and passionate commitment have earned him many awards and honours.

Mr. Bell was born on the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve, near Montréal, to a Mohawk father and an American mother. His first career was as a conductor of Broadway musicals in New York. In 1980, he was appointed apprentice conductor of the Toronto Symphony, becoming the first person of Indigenous heritage to conduct a major orchestra.

In 1984, he established the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (now Indspire) and built it into the largest charity serving Indigenous people. Under his leadership, it raised some $80 million and sent tens of thousands of Indigenous students to colleges and universities across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

In 1988, he produced, directed, co-composed and conducted In the Land of Spirits, the first full-scale Indigenous ballet. It premiered at the National Arts Centre and enjoyed a highly successful national tour.

In 1993, he created the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (now the Indspire Awards), Canada’s largest Indigenous cultural project. He designed, executive produced and directed 11 editions of the national CBC telecast of the awards, and amazed and delighted audiences with his spectacular stage sets.

He currently serves as business advisor to and lead negotiator for Michipicoten First Nation (Wawa, Ontario) on its mining and energy activity.

“I’ve faced many challenges and obstacles along the way,” he says, “but I’ve always been determined and persistent. I just push through!”

John Kim Bell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Member of the Order of Ontario. His other honours include the Royal Bank Award for Canadian Achievement, Queen Elizabeth II Silver, Gold and Diamond Jubilee medals, Royal Conservatory of Music Lifetime Achievement Award, Indigenous Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, three Eagle Feathers presented by the Indigenous community for his contribution to the advancement of Indigenous peoples, and honorary doctorates from six Canadian universities. His extensive and diverse accomplishments are the subject of four documentaries on his life.

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John Kim Bell’s video message can be viewed here:

The 2023 Gala will be held on Saturday May 27 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The award recipients are celebrated at an exclusive event preceding the Gala. The evening before, recipients receive their award medallions, struck by the Royal Canadian Mint, from the Governor General at a special Awards ceremony and dinner at Rideau Hall. It’s a warm and prestigious celebration of their achievements in the performing arts.