Diversity & Inclusion Take Centre Stage at Junos 50 Opening Night

The Junos last night followed a week of collective hurt as Canadians mourned—and processed—the tragic news surrounding the discovery of the bodies of 215 children buried near the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The opening night of the 50th annual awards ceremony began with a moment of silence to honour these murdered children. After this pause, it was time to let the music help heal.

The 2021 Junos opening night celebrated Canadian music in all its colours. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are top of mind these days and rightly so. It was no surprise that this zeitgeist was represented in the performances and in the honourees. Women and Black artists took centre stage. There were also 24 first-time winners.

Like all events in the past 15 months, due to the pandemic, the Junos—hoping for a big celebration to mark its 50th anniversary—was forced to pivot not just once, but several times. Last night’s opening gala, which is usually a star-studded affair where the industry celebrates with a sit-down dinner, was less extravagant and less personal; kudos to the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and all involved for creating a virtual show that was still engaging and entertaining.

Performances included a powerful opening spoken word/a cappella twist by TOBi of his song “Family Matters.” The Toronto rapper won a Juno for Rap Recording of the Year for Elements Vol.1. Another highlight was the homage to reggae from TÖME, Kirk Diamond, and Ammoye. The trio performed a medley, each singing one of their hits.  

After his GRAMMY’s snub, where he was shut out from even a nomination, The Weeknd won a trio of Junos last night for his hit “Blinding Lights” (Songwriter of the Year, Single of the Year, and Contemporary R&B Recording of the Year). The Weeknd is also nominated for three additional awards (Album of the Year, Artist of the Year and Juno Fan Choice), which will be announced on Sunday night at the 50th Annual Juno Awards broadcast.

Here are some of the highlights from the opening night ceremonies.

JJ Wilde, who hails from Kitchener, Ontario, won for Rock Album of the Year for Ruthless – beating out veterans like Neil Young and the Sam Roberts Band. With the win Wilde became the first woman to win in the rock category since 1996 when Alanis Morissette won for Jagged Little Pill. Interviewed afterwards, Wilde thanked her family and said it had been a long road. “I’ve been working for the past 15 years, holding down two or three part-time jobs to support my music. I’m just so grateful.”

Speaking of Morissette, she added another Juno to her haul, winning Adult Contemporary Album of the Year for Such Pretty Forks in the Road.

Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year went to Leela Gilday for North Star Calling. When asked about how events of the past 15 months have worked their way into her songwriting, the two-time Juno winner said: “At the outset of the pandemic I decided this is the time to write a body of work entirely in my own language, which is Dene K’e. I didn’t grow up learning my language since my mother went to a residential school. This is significant. I’ve always used bits and pieces of my language in my work, but as an artist, and as a human, I narrowed in on how important it was to reclaim my language through art and share that with the world. I’m still in the writing process and look forward to sharing those songs with people.”

Other award winners included: Crown Lands (Breakthrough Artist of the Year); Sammy Jackson (Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for With You); and WondaGurl, who became the first Black female to win Producer of the Year.

July Talk won Alternative Album of the Year for Pray for It. Interviewed afterwards, and asked about the week’s news, band member Peter Dreimanis spoke about the theme of their Juno-winning record and how it relates: “Even the title came out of a need to surrender, throw our hands in the air and admit we don’t have all the answers … the people that we really respect are the ones that ask a lot of questions and admit they don’t know it all. I think 2020 has definitely proven that we don’t know much. The album was about that. Trying to find a superpower in vulnerability rather than posturing in male attitudes that we had grown up surrounded by.”

Also announced was the introduction of three new categories for 2022: Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year will be split into two awards: Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year and Traditional Indigenous Artist of Group of the Year. Rap Recording of the Year will also separate into two categories: Rap Single of the Year and Rap Album/EP of the Year. Underground Dance Single of the Year was also announced.

Near the end of the ceremony, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced Canada’s largest city would host the 2022 Junos with hopes of a return to normal and a full celebration for fans with venues across the city reopening to showcase artists.

Finally, these awards took time out to honour a pair of long-time industry leaders and champions. Special award presentations were made on the Junos opening night to Gary Slaight (MusiCounts Inspired Minds Ambassador Award Presented by Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation) and Pegi Cecconi (Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award).

If you missed last night’s festivities, you can still watch HERE. A full list of last night’s winners is available HERE.