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Buffy Sainte-Marie is still finding pleasure in the song after all these years.

Matt Barnes

Buffy Sainte-Marie's album Power in the Blood has won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize, an award that celebrates the Canadian album with the most "artistic merit" each year without regard for genre, sales or label. The prize, presented at a gala Monday night in Toronto, is worth $50,000.

Ms. Sainte-Marie's album, which ranges in genre from blues to rockabilly, is the most overtly activist album to win in Polaris's history. It includes songs such as The Uranium War and modified versions of UB40's Sing Our Own Song, and Alabama 3's Power in the Blood, which chastise corporate greed and support the Idle No More movement. "Ever since the sixties I've been making diverse albums, and every single album has had big love songs, which has managed to support me, like Up Where We Belong," she said in an interview Monday night. "That's allowed me to remain an artist. But on every album there's been songs that have some kind of social meaning to them."

"I don't hold back form trying to craft a song that not only touches people but also might expand their horizons," she continued, "and give them some support for sticking up for what needs to be protected in their own communities."

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Ms. Sainte-Marie said she would split her prize money between three charities - ones that deal with with animal rights, marginalized peoples, as well as indigenous people and the environment - and put some of it into fixing up her studio. She also lamented the high costs of airlines, asking artists and members of the audience to consider donating to school sports and arts groups to help them afford to travel.

Despite being known as a folk icon, her work has largely been overlooked in recent decades. She chalked up the attention surrounding Power in the Blood to the effort her label, True North Records, put into promoting it. Ms. Sainte-Marie is the second indigenous winner of the Polaris Prize, following last year's win by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. She suggested Canadians pay better attention to native artists: "Aboriginal music has been good for a very long time," she said, "but nobody has been listening to it."

A grand jury of 11 music journalists determined the winner from a 10-album shortlist, which this year harkened a great deal of reflection on music history. Ms. Sainte-Marie, a 74-year-old Cree artist and icon of 1960s folk, was the winner, but even the records by younger artists evoked sounds of the past.

Tobias Jesso Jr.'s Goon harnesses the sounds of the Beatles and Harry Nilsson, while Jennifer Castle's Pink City features songs reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. Sour Soul, the collaborative album between Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah and Toronto jazz band BadBadNotGood, is considered part of a career renaissance for the rapper, whose group helped usher in the sound of mid-1990s hip hop. The Toronto band Alvvays and Montreal's Braids both borrow from the pop of that decade and the 80s. Toronto rapper Drake's acclaimed mix tape If You're Reading This It's Too Late was also nominated, alongside albums by previous winner Caribou, indie-pop band the New Pornographers and the controversially named Calgary post-punk band Viet Cong. The runners-up will each receive a $3,000 prize.

At the gala, five of the nominees performed selections from their shortlisted albums, some of whom were accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Performers included Ms. Sainte-Marie, Alvvays and Braids.

The award marked its 10th anniversary. The ceremony was hosted by children's performer Fred Penner, who emerged on stage from a light-projected log tunnel and peppered his introduction with humour: "I thought [hosting] would be a good chance to meet Ghostface Killah."

In recent months, Viet Cong has been accused of cultural insensitivity for naming the band after the communist military force. The band was booed by a small portion of the crowd when Mr. Penner announced it. But the group had announced this past weekend it would be changing its name in the coming months. When Operators frontman Dan Boeckner (formerly of Montreal's Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) introduced the band, he referenced their regret in choosing their name, and only referred to them as "Four Guys from Calgary."

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Ms. Sainte-Marie said in an interview before the ceremony that she loved Viet Cong's nominated, self-titled album, and was happy it planned to change its name: "It's a distraction from the fact that they make great music."

This marked Drake's third nomination without a win; he'd previously been nominated for 2011's Take Care and 2013's Nothing Was the Same. He did not attend the ceremony Monday night.

Albums released between June, 2014, and May, 2015, were eligible for this year's Polaris Prize. The 196-member jury of music journalists and critics picked a 40-album long list this past June, which was whittled down to a shortlist in July.

An album is considered eligible if at least half of its performers are Canadian, allowing the Ghostface-BadBadNotGood collaboration to qualify – a first for the annual prize. Before the ceremony, members of BadBadNotGood said the American collaboration wasn't necessarily something they thought too much about, but that they were happy to be nominated, noting that most of the production was Canada-based.

Ghostface "wanted it to be our album, because he appreciated how much work went into it," said drummer Alexander Sowinski in an interview.

This year also marked the beginning of the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize, which celebrates albums released before the Polaris got its start a decade ago, with shortlists selected by a jury and winners voted on by the public. Voting ends Oct. 5.

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