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Told as a child by her adoptive American parents that she would never be a musician, the odds always seemed stacked high against the Saskatchewan-born Sainte-Marie.Christie Goodwin/Handout

A new film examines the paradox that is Buffy Sainte-Marie. On one hand, the activist/recording artist should probably be more of a household name, especially in the United States. On the other, any success and fame she has achieved could easily be seen as a wild surprise.

Told as a child by her adoptive American parents that she would never be a musician, the odds always seemed stacked high against the Saskatchewan-born Sainte-Marie. She couldn’t read music; she didn’t have high-powered managers; she was hard to market; and, she claims, the U.S. government banned her agitative material from radio in the 1960s.

Moreover, Sainte-Marie had no drive and no plan. “It was just so absurd for me to have a hit record.,” she says, speaking to The Globe and Mail from her home in Hawaii. “I was just a girl with a guitar.”

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So, the new feature documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, which has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, looks at the unlikeliest of creatures: the guileless celebrity.

Not only guileless, but semi-obscure: Many Americans who are familiar with her hit song The Universal Soldier might know it from Donovan’s cover version rather than Sainte-Marie’s original recording. Others might recognize the Indigenous icon from her stint on the children’s show Sesame Street instead of her music.

It was a landmark pop-cultural occasion in 1977 when Sainte-Marie breastfed her infant son on national television as a bewildered Big Bird looked on. People who viewed an eight-foot-tall canary as not terrifying at all were shocked instead by a perfectly natural mothering moment.

It wasn’t the first time – and it wouldn’t be the last – that Sainte-Marie’s teacherly audacity provoked concern, curiosity, even confusion. More often than not, audiences just weren’t ready for the brown-skinned musician who burst on the scene in 1964 with the debut-album exclamation of It’s My Way!, which earned her the title of Billboard’s best new artist.

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“I’ve been unusually fortunate to be able to do pretty much what I’ve wanted to do,” the 81-year-old Sainte-Marie says. “It’s My Way, the song, is about the totally unique one-person path that each of us walks alone.”

The film relies on conversations with its subject and a parade of talking heads that includes Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, Alanis Obomsawin, Jackson Browne and, surprisingly, Joni Mitchell. “What I heard from producers is that Joni doesn’t do interviews anymore, but she was willing to do it because of Buffy,” says the film’s director, Madison Thomas. “We received quite a few responses like that.”

The documentary also pulls together old press clippings. Time magazine depicted Sainte-Marie in the 1960s as a “loner in a white man’s world” who took “lessons from no one” and had “little truck with the chummy folk fraternity.”

Director Madison Thomas's film relies on conversations with its subject and a parade of talking heads.Rae Jennae/Handout

That summation was bang on. As an Indigenous musician fresh out of the University of Massachusetts, with degrees in teaching and oriental philosophy, Sainte-Marie had no idea which doors to knock on.

“I wasn’t Paul Simon,” says Sainte-Marie, characterizing her young self as green and naive. “I didn’t think like a professional, I didn’t think about elbowing others out of the way, and I didn’t think about having a big, big career.”

The documentary chronicles a windblown professional life that includes long stretches of inactivity caused by a volatile marriage with a possessive husband (Up Where We Belong co-writer Jack Nitzsche) and the solo raising of her son by another marriage. Through the ups and downs, she applied herself to the things that mattered most.

Carry It On takes its title from a pro-environment song Sainte-Marie wrote decades ago but finally recorded in 2017. Over the course of the film, a theme emerges: Sainte-Marie was out of step and ahead of her time.

“I wrote Carry It On in the sixties or seventies, but it was just too early,” she says. “People were not aware of environmental issues in those days but, now, that kind of song will have an audience.”

That kind of topicality extends to My Country: ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying from 1966 and Now That the Buffalo’s Gone from 1964. “With truth and reconciliation today, my Indigenous songs are very timely now. But the attitude back then was, ‘the little Indian girl must be mistaken.’ What I was getting was pity and disbelief.”

The singer seems fairly unbothered by past criticisms and condescension. “She’s always living in the future,” says Sainte-Marie biographer Andrea Warner, who worked on the documentary. “I don’t know if that takes away the hurt in the moment, but I think it gives her a bit of perspective to move through things.”

Thomas agrees. “Buffy is one of the people I’ve met on this planet who has the least amount of ego, especially of someone of her stature as a celebrity. She’s curious to hear other perspectives.”

Thomas herself has a fresh take on Sainte-Marie, using a pejorative adoringly. “Buffy’s just a huge, damn nerd in so many ways, and she dares to share all the things she’s nerdy about,” the director says. “I’ve never met someone who just wants to talk about that stuff with anyone who listens.”

A nerd prevails, then. When it comes to the six-decade career of Sainte-Marie, we always heard her. Now we’re finally listening.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On screens at TIFF Sept. 8, 9 and 17 before its theatrical release later this month (tiff.net)

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