Life on the road for musicians is hard enough. Doing it without actual roads makes it tougher still.
As a teenager at a residential school in Yellowknife in the early 1960s, Métis fiddler Richard Lafferty and the other student musicians of the Arctic Ramblers loaded their instruments on a sleigh to cross the soggy springtime ice of the Mackenzie River en route to a country dance on the south side.
”It was a little watery here and there,” Mr. Lafferty recalled in a 2014 interview. “Whatever. We didn’t soak anything.”
In 1963, he left school to be trained as a heavy equipment operator. He then got a government job building and maintaining roads, eventually becoming a regional highway operations manager. For years, he said that he would quit when a road from the Alberta-Northwest Territories border to Hay River and Yellowknife was completed.
“So now it’s done,” he said in 2007, “and I’m going home to write my letter of resignation.”
Though he was long considered one of the most talented fiddlers in the Northwest Territories, Mr. Lafferty was able to travel to only a few festivals a year because of his full-time day job. In retirement he was able to devote himself to his instrument, hitting some of the roads he had literally paved himself.
Mr. Lafferty, who played to sold-out venues at Expo 86 in Vancouver, fiddled for Queen Elizabeth in Yellowknife in 1994, rosined his bow at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 and kept toe-tappers and dance floor jiggers busy for some 60 years, died at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Dec. 21, two days before his 77th birthday. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Lafferty was awarded a Métis Sash for his contributions to Métis music in the Mackenzie River Valley. Also proficient on guitar and mandolin, he helped form the Métis Reelers to keep dancing traditions alive.
The Métis created a style of fiddling related to the French Canadians, Scots, Irish and Americans, but with unique phrasing and structure denoting a strong Indigenous influence. It didn’t matter that bars dropped here and there, according to Mr. Lafferty, “because dancers follow the melodies and do not follow the bars.”
Marked by the percussive use of the bow, Métis fiddle music instigates and accelerates dance. (The old Métis joke is that the best way to frustrate a Métis is to nail their footwear to the floor and play the Red River Jig.)
The music teacher and classically trained violinist Andrea Bettger had just moved from Toronto to Hay River when she came across Mr. Lafferty at a fiddle competition in the early 2000s. Not versed in Northern Métis-style fiddling and thinking the contest was simply a showcase for blazing proficiency, Ms. Bettger played as fast as she could. Though she executed her piece quickly and note-perfectly, she failed to place in the top three spots.
“It made me stop and listen to Richard and the other fiddlers,” Ms. Bettger told The Globe and Mail. “I learned that you’re playing so that people can enjoy the music by moving through the room.”
Ms. Bettger, a fusion-fiddle musician who has toured or recorded with art-rockers the Rheostatics, singer-songwriter Jane Siberry and Nunavut indie-band the Jerry Cans, later sought out Mr. Lafferty as a professional mentor to help in her development as a teacher. She also studied his technique. “Coming from a classical world, it was a big stretch for me to watch his left hand and throw away all the textbooks about what was considered proper technique,” she said. “As for his right hand, it was just as free as a bird, sailing over the strings. And if it hit a string that wasn’t intended, it didn’t really matter.”
Mr. Lafferty was known by friends and family as a merry soul with an unworried mind and a demeanour as buoyant as his music. He joins a number of veteran Canadian fiddlers who stopped putting bow to string in 2021. Nunavut native Colin Adjun, who was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and who was dubbed the Fiddler of the Arctic, died Dec. 3, at age 77.
Alberta Métis Elder Martin Hamelin, a member of the Nicely Put Together Band that added Métis charisma to country music, died on Nov. 30. He was 82. And Manitoba-born Joe Loutchan, who held down a long-standing Thursday-night residency at the 98 Hotel in Whitehorse and who played for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, died at age 82 on Feb. 3.
“The big guy in the sky must have called for a square dance,” said George Tuccaro, a musician, former CBC Radio broadcaster and one-time commissioner of the Northwest Territories who was a friend of Mr. Lafferty.
Mr. Tuccaro was on stage at the Xerox International Theatre in Vancouver for Expo 86, where Northwest Territories arts and culture were highlighted. As the emcee, Mr. Tuccaro entertained with comedic jigs that caused Mr. Lafferty to laugh hard enough that he lost his bearings and fell off the riser into a large, black curtain backdrop.
“We picked Richard up and he kept playing as if nothing happened,” Mr. Tuccaro recalled. “Later, he told us that all of a sudden everything went black.”
Colourful stories and fascinating hardships are part and parcel of the Northern musician experience. Métis fiddler Angus Beaulieu, a contemporary of Mr. Lafferty, would travel in the Northwest Territories from Fort Resolution to Hay River for spring dances using a skiff. “The trip took a day and a half if there was no ice,” he recounted in a video produced by the Gabriel Dumont Institute, dedicated to the renewal and development of Métis culture.
Mr. Lafferty’s last public performance was in Hay River, where he lived. In 2019, he was honoured alongside his wife, Ruth Lafferty, at a Hay River Métis Government Council function. “He was very proud of his heritage,” said Mr. Tuccaro, “and, of course, he loved to play.”
Richard Harold Lafferty was born Dec. 23, 1944, in Fort Providence, the only son and one of three children of homemaker Eva Lafferty (née Bouvier). Skilled in moose hair tufting, moccasin making and porcupine quillwork, she was the great-granddaughter of Catherine Beaulieu Bouvier Lamoureux, an early Mackenzie Valley Métis matriarch and tough-as-nails woman who in 2012 was designated a National Historic Person by the federal government.
Mr. Lafferty’s stepfather, Gabe Lafferty, worked on the barges of the Mackenzie River.
People who live in isolated communities create their own entertainment, and the Laffertys were no exception. “From the time I was in diapers there was music around my ears,” Mr. Lafferty said in an interview with Musicians of the Midnight Sun, an archive of the stories of Northern musicians.
Guitars were common enough in the house that he learned to play on his own. An uncle, Daniel Bouvier, helped him on fiddle, but would hide his instrument whenever he went away to check his fishnets. “I would take it out, and he knew because it wasn’t in tune when he come back,” Mr. Lafferty said in 2014.
He attended a local day school in Fort Providence until Grade 7. In 1959 he was taken to the newly opened Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, gathered with other students by single-engine Otters operated by Wardair. After one year, he was transferred to another residential school, Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife. There he played with the Arctic Ramblers. Members of that dance band included guitarist Nick Sibbeston, who went on to become the premier of the Northwest Territories in 1985 and, later, a federal senator.
From 1964 to 2007, Mr. Lafferty squeezed in his fiddle playing – he reportedly didn’t own his own instrument until 1981 – while working for federal and territorial transportation departments. In 1983, he recorded the cassette-only Muskeg Fiddler. He also contributed to the compilation Drops of Brandy: An Anthology of Métis Music. His most recent album, 2003′s Fiddler’s Dream with Calvin Vollrath, was built for waltzing, clogging and Spanish two-stepping.
Dubbed the Ice Man because he built ice roads (as well as other kinds), Mr. Lafferty retired as the longest-serving employee of the Government of Northwest Territories. In his later years, he regularly hit the highways to attend festivals such as the annual Fiddlers’ Jamboree in Grande Prairie, Alta., and he was a bright face at fiddle camps across the Prairies. Said Mr. Tuccaro, “Any opportunity to bring out the bow and fiddle, he’d be there.”
Mr. Lafferty leaves his wife, Ruth Lafferty (née Arychuk); daughter, Rhonda Plamondon; son, Richard C. Lafferty; and five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.