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Meet the 2021 Walter Carsen Prize Winner

Video description

Don Ross is the 2021 winner of the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts. The video was directed by Ryan McCarvill.

The Canada Council for the Arts is a federal, arm's-length Crown corporation created by an Act of Parliament in 1957 (Canada Council for the Arts Act) "to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts."

For more information, visit: https://canadacouncil.ca/funding/prizes/walter-carsen-prize-for-excellence-in-the-performing-arts

Publication date

December 16, 2021

Scene two. Take one. [Sound of the clapboard.]

Whenever you are ready.

[Guitar music.]

My name is Don Ross and I have been a composer and performer for many years.

Since the late 80s, I have been at it full-time.

My background is kind of interesting, I guess.

My father is a Scottish immigrant, and he met my Indigenous mother in Montréal.

I am really proud to be a member of the Millbrook Mi’kmaq First Nation.

I have never actually lived on the reserve.

My parents did. My mother, of course, grew up there.

And, later in life, she and my dad decided to move back.

So, I started visiting really regularly.

I got to know the community a bit and the chief and council. And it is a really great group of people. Over the years, they have been really supportive for not just myself, but they helped have my daughters with their education. So, I already feel like I owe a lot to the community. Especially since my wife and I decided first to move back to Nova Scotia and now here to Prince Edward Island.

It’s all Mi’kmaqy. It feels like there was just always something magical about this place.

I think my music has been influenced very much by where I have lived.

I grew up in a Francophone milieu and I listened to a lot of music that lot of Anglo Canadians and Americans would not necessarily have been familiar with.

I think that had a strong influence on me. But then I grew up in big cities, so it really opened me up to a whole lot of different musical influences.


I did a bachelor’s degree at York University, in Toronto. It was pretty incumbent that I start making money and having my own job. And I applied and received a fairly major grant early on in my career in the late 80s. And I was finally able to say, “OK! This is a sign that I am to quit the job.” And I am happy to say I have never had a straight job since.


Through a lot of my career, because I was travelling so much, I found geography and human beings were some of the most predominant reasons for being inspired to write a tune. And one way… Fortunately, this is kind of cool—this is a new method I use to write more in the ten years or so.

I started recording my own albums. So, sometimes what I do is I will be writing a piece of music, and I will come up with a bunch of ideas. And I will just say to myself, “I will just freeform—whatever comes to mind,” and I just press Play and Record and I will just work on these ideas.

I will go back and listen to them and I think, “Hmm, OK, idea 4 was pretty good and idea 7 was not bad,” and I will start editing those pieces together to see what they sound like. And I will say, “Hmm, that is actually cool.” And usually I will say, “Now, I will re-record it.” Occasionally, though, it might be 16 minutes long and I cut it down to 10. Then I think, “Well, 10 is too long, but it is starting to glue together better.” And I will keep whittling away and whittling away just with editing. Then, I would end up with a 4-minute really cool tune.

That’s a really nice new way of working that I would not have been able to do earlier in my career.


Launching a career in the music industry is a totally different landscape now than it was when I started, that is for sure. When Napster happened, suddenly the bottom fell out of the recording industry, and it has really never recovered. In fact, it has gotten smaller and smaller.

A couple of summers ago, I am driving along with my wife. She is driving the car and I am sitting there, sort of moaning about how difficult it is getting. And she said, “Would you consider going back to school?” I said, “Well, only if I can find an online master’s program in orchestration for film, television. As she was driving along, about 10 minutes later, I found the program that I ended up enrolling in. Ironically, even before my degree ended, I started getting offers to do film and television work. And it has been non-stop. I write more music now than I ever have. And it has become an everyday, full-time, very viable way to do it. And I am really happy about that.

I knew I had been nominated for the Walter Carsen Prize. And I knew that the music side only comes up once every four years. That is kind of interesting, because it is not an annual prize. And the judges are your peers. That, to me, almost means more than anything else about the whole thing. It feels like a doff of the cap from them. That is a real privilege because it makes you realize that I do not just have fans, or I do not just have listeners. I also have people who are really discerning, who are making decisions about things like this. On many levels, it is such an honour.

I do not know what Canadians would do without organizations like the Canada Council for the Arts. Because it is not just artists that benefit, it is audiences that benefit the most. Because Canada needs to have its own voice, its own culture, its own artistic activity. And if we do not invest in it, it will not exist.

So, it is wonderful that, in this day and age, we have organizations like the Council and that they are supported by governments and populations. That is great.

[Guitar music.]