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Tsleil-Waututh Nation's Dennis Thomas joins VSO board

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has appointed Dennis Thomas-Whonoak, chair of its Indigenous Council, to director of its board.
Tsleil-Waututh Nation's Dennis Thomas-Whonoak has been appointed director on the VSO's board. | Dennis Thomas-Whonoak

Tsleil-Waututh Nation council member Dennis Thomas-Whonoak has been appointed to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors, marking another step forward in the orchestra’s ongoing reconciliation efforts.

“I’m so glad to be a part of this growth, and to have this stage opened up to us in this way, that really says something,” said Thomas-Whonoak.

Thomas-Whonoak, who has spearheaded the VSO’s Indigenous Council since its inception in 2018, said the orchestra has been “heading in the right direction” for years in regards to its commitment to building stronger relationships with local Indigenous communities.

The introduction of the council four years ago saw Indigenous music brought to the orchestra, but also fresh music built from a combined community perspective. This partnership, he said, is something he only hopes to bolster with his new role.

“We’re mixing it up a little bit. We’re showing our traditional stories, which really speaks to our history, our culture, our values, our legends and our mythology, and then we pair that with the contemporary artists and the compositions that we have jointly created,” he said.

“That’s the unique, special aspect of what we’re trying to do. We’re here to show what we can do together.”

The fusion of modern storytelling with indigenous tales and legends makes the material approachable to a wider audience, he said, and opens the gates for further First Nations, Metis and Inuit inclusion.

“That is one of those underlying changes that we want to achieve with me being on the board.”

“We will bring in more demographics and provide space for more people from different backgrounds to share their stories. The path has been allowed and the path forward is going to be even bigger, because it’s going to be at full capacity,” he said.

With the general followers of the VSO exposed to so many varying Indigenous cultures, Thomas-Whonoak said the arts scene will be leading the charge in terms of widening people’s minds in coming months.

“We’re probably going to change a lot of people’s worldviews and, ultimately, that’s the goal.”

Even prior to his induction as director of the board Thomas-Whonoak’s presence on the Indigenous Council was at the centre of a ripple effect of movement with other organizations, including the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, reaching out for advice on setting up their own in-house, Indigenous-focused board.

“Dennis’s involvement on the board will change the shape and thinking of the current directors, not least those outside of it,” said Angela Elster, CEO and President, adding all members are “thrilled” to have Thomas-Whonoak take on the new role.

When the new board comes together for the first time in a few weeks Elster and Thomas-Whonoak will have much to discuss, including a number of fusion projects that are currently in the pipeline.

Two penned for April are particularly hotly anticipated, they both attest, including The Path Forward — a collaboration between the Indigenous Council and the orchestra which focuses on traditional dancing, drumming, stories and singing — and Carnival of OUR Animals, a Coast Salish reimagining of Camille Saint-Saens’s classic Carnival of the Animals.

“Dennis has demonstrated so much over the last four years about how he believes in the power of music to build bridges,” said Elster.

“Him being director is extraordinarily important, and we’re very excited about the days, months and years ahead.”

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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