Michele-Elise Burnett on leaving broadcasting, her Indigenous roots — and how she’s helping reshape Niagara’s cross-cultural landscape
When it comes to her Indigenous heritage, Michele-Elise Burnett ’86 is busy building bridges—and her work is helping to invigorate and reshape Niagara’s cross-cultural landscape. A proud Métis with Algonquin roots, in conversation she’s quick to laugh, wise and measured in her words, with a steady strength she credits her mother, well-known broadcaster and businesswoman, Dr. Suzanne Rochon-Burnett. Michele-Elise left a career in radio to follow in her activist footsteps, and now she’s working to find the creative platforms from which her people can speak.
“My mom was an art collector, and she would tell me that our teachings are in our art forms,” the Ridleian thoughtfully explains. “Whether it be through paintings, opera, music, or modern dance—our Indigenous artists are the ambassadors to our culture and traditions. I’m working to educate others on the power of healing through the arts, and help construct a strong cross-cultural community based on mutual and sustaining respect.”
“We’re oral people, with oral traditions, and our teachings are in our art forms—our artists are the biggest ambassadors to our culture. That’s how we tell our stories.”
To speak with Michele-Elise is to receive a lesson in conversation—but you might say it’s in her blood, coming from a heritage rich with oral traditions, and the only child of one of Canada’s broadcasting pioneers. Michele-Elise was raised in radio, her time spent playing in production studios, her world filled with music, talk and entertainers. Her father, radio-station owner Gordon Burnett, served two terms as President of the Juno Awards, and brought country music to life in Canada. In 1992, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame as one of the founding members of the Country Music Awards.
“I always knew I’d go into broadcasting,” she says, looking back. “I loved that you weren’t at the mercy of the size of a screen—you had to think outside the box to be able to paint pictures with only words and sound.” In 1996, after graduating from Ryerson University’s Radio, Television & Film programme, Michele-Elise and Suzanne took over the radio station and launched Spirit 91.7 FM, a hard-won battle that followed two gruelling years spent in and out of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The women proudly became the first Indigenous people in Canada to be granted licenses by the CRTC.
“I always knew I’d go into broadcasting. I loved that you weren’t at the mercy of the size of a screen—you had to think outside the box to be able to paint pictures with only words and sound.”
Before her mother passed in 2006, she entreated her daughter to take over where she left off, to continue sharing the deep-rooted beauty of her people’s culture and traditions through the lens of art. Michele-Elise was heartbroken by the loss. Suzanne was highly decorated and revered in the community, named to the Orders of Canada and Ontario, a founding member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, and the first woman to be inducted into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame. But she was also Michele-Elise’s best friend, her mentor and teacher.
When Michele-Elise left the business two years later, there was no set plan. “In the radio industry, I knew who I was. I lived a great life,” she shares. “But I still have pain. I still carry the pain of my mother, my grandmother, my ancestors. I just knew that I wanted to bridge people together, to find those platforms that would give our people a voice.”
“My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” — Louis Riel
And, over time, the plan came into focus. Michele-Elise now develops projects that are transforming the Niagara’s understanding of Indigenous people—and, looking forward, she’s determined to bring those projects to life across the country.
She officially relaunched Kakekalanicks, the consulting company her mother had started back in the 1980s, which helped champion and sell Indigenous art pieces all over the world. But where her mother focused on visual arts, Michele-Elise takes a multidisciplinary approach, working to promote and educate people about Indigenous ways of life on stage, in outdoor spaces and in classrooms nationwide. The company now supports many of the area’s cultural projects.
Joining forces in 2014, she and business partner, Tim Johnson have since worked together to develop arts and educational programmes across the Niagara region. Projects include the Indigenous Cultural Map—an online resource which brings to life historic and cultural locations along the Niagara Escarpment through artistic expression; the Celebration of Nations event—an annual gathering of Indigenous arts and culture; and Landscape of Nations 360°—an ambitious not-for-profit which works to create, design and implement educational and expressive arts programmes to help transform public understanding of Indigenous peoples.
And Niagara has been quick to respond. In 2018, Michele-Elise won the GNCC Women in Business Cultural Arts Award for her work with the Celebration of Nations. “It felt like I was receiving this on behalf of our artists, our knowledge keepers,” she recalls, honoured to be amongst so many accomplished women. “To have Niagara honour an Indigenous person was heartwarming—because without our community behind me, nothing happens. Things are shifting.”
“I’m working to educate others on the power of healing through the arts, and help construct a strong cross-cultural community based on mutual and sustaining respect.”
The pair is now working on a new project called Empathic Traditions, a virtual museum created in partnership with the Niagara Falls Historical Museum which will teach people about the region’s rich history. “Before contact, the different chiefs would come to Niagara’s ‘Thundering Falls’ to discuss what was going on in our nations on Turtle Island,” she says, using the name used by many for North America. “It was a migration path for millennia. We’ve found artifacts in Niagara dating back 13,000 years.”
A Brock Board of Trustees member and co-chair of the Aboriginal Education Council, Michele-Elise is also working closely with the school’s inaugural Vice-Provost of Indigenous Engagement, helping to develop plans for the years to come. “It’s a moment of change,” Brock President Gervan Fearson said in an interview with Brock News. “We’re building an institution that’s inclusive of all peoples—and in particular Indigenous communities.” The university now proudly flies the Two-Row Wampum flag, gifted by Michele-Elise and Tim, and the campus roundabout has been named “Suzanne Rochon-Burnett Circle,” and a scholarship given in her name.
“We need to always think about how things are going to affect the next seven generations: How will doing this or that affect my family? Am I being a good ancestor? Will they thank me for it? Everything we do today will impact everything we do tomorrow—and when you have this philosophy in mind you will do things differently; you will think and not simply react.”
The first training programme of its kind in Canada, the Landscape of Nations 360° Indigenous Education Initiative is going into its third phase, developing a framework for essential understandings about the region’s Indigenous peoples, aimed at educators across the Peninsula. “We in Niagara are the inheritors of a profound story involving many of the Indigenous nations,” Michele-Elise explains, hoping to expand the programme country-wide. “But students have been taught with materials which leave them with no understanding of the world-changing achievements of our ancestors. Policy decisions that negatively impact Indigenous, Inuit and Métis people—these deficiencies result, in large part, from a lack of education beginning in grade school.”
The impressive programme, which aims to soon rollout these materials in classrooms, has been eagerly taken up by schools across Niagara—including ours. This past year, four teachers from Ridley participated in the training sessions. For Michele-Elise, working to bring Indigenous history and culture to its familiar classrooms is a natural fit.
“We’re a Ridley family,” she laughs, sharing that they’re building a memento-filled ‘Ridley Room’ in their new house. “I was no longer a minority when I went there,” she explains. “There were so many different cultures and backgrounds; I was just like everyone else, all raised under the same Ridley roof.”
“To now be working with Ridley and collaborating on LON 360° is incredible. It’s family.”
One of the few women on Ridley’s U.S. Foundation Board, Michele-Elise has been an integral part of our community for years, whether serving on the Marketing Committee (now Advancement Committee), on the Board of Governors, or launching the Women of Ridley—a group where like-minded alumnae can reach out for mentorship and support.
“I was one of the few single mothers. It was difficult, at times, and led me to think about how we can help other women, other alumnae, who are now doing the same.”
She dreams of one day establishing a Women of Ridley scholarship. When Michele-Elise had children, it was important to her that they attend Ridley, which provided her with the discipline, global mindset, and friendships she still has to this day. “But I was one of the few single mothers,” she remembers. Her children, Zander Burnett Metz ’12 and William Louis Reich ’19 both graduated from Ridley. “It was difficult, at times, and led me to think about how we can help other women, other alumnae, who are now doing the same.”
And, as the region continues to embrace its Indigenous history, our school one of many eager to incorporate a rich and little-known past into its future, Michele-Elise’s commitment to her community only deepens, the footprints on the path her mother travelled now shared by her own steps.
“My people will sleep for a hundred years,” Métis leader Louis Riel predicted more than a century ago, a quote that’s close to her heart. “But when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” For Michele-Elise, who has long recognized the need to rouse us all—be it by brush, on stage, or in the classroom—the voices of our past are growing louder, and the stirrings of these lands are coming to life once more. It’s time to wake up.
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from our summer issue.