Three Ojibwe teenagers from Sagkeeng First Nation are rocking the aboriginal world, and the nation, for taking the top spot on the first-ever season of Canada’s Got Talent.
The trio—brothers Brandon and Dallas Courchene and Vincent O’Laney—were declared the grand prize winners on May 14 for the reality show’s inaugural season with a lively routine solidly rooted in traditional dancing spiced with tap, clogging and a touch of hip-hop. The traditional dance group call themselves Sagkeeng’s Finest, hailing from the First Nation of the same name, located near Fort Alexander, Manitoba.
O’Laney said the Courchene brothers and himself are actually part of an eight-member dance group. But the three of them are the ones who decided to attend an audition for Canada’s Got Talent in Winnipeg last fall. Auditions were also held in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax, drawing 12,000 acts to vie for a spot on the show.
O’Laney, 17, said he was somewhat surprised that Sagkeeng’s Finest kept moving up. The group survived cuts at three auditions in Winnipeg and two others in Toronto. The three qualified for the semi-final round, which consisted of 24 acts, then advanced to the final 12. Another aboriginal performer, two-time world hoop dancing champion Lisa Odjig, an Odawa-Ojibwe from Toronto, was among the 36 contestants who advanced to the semi-final, but she was eliminated.
After the semi-final round, Sagkeeng’s Finest received kudos from the judges, including comedian Martin Short, for the improvement they had shown with each performance.
“You’re oozing charm, and I hope you win a billion dollars someday,” Short told them.
On the last night the trio survived a further cut down to three acts before being declared the champions. They were up against two much more experienced performers: a Moncton-based rock band called Angry Candy, and Freshh, a Vancouver hip-hop group.
“We knew we were okay but we didn’t think we’d make it that far,” O’Laney said. “We knew we had talent, but everyone kept calling us the underdogs.”
Brandon Courchene, who is also 17 and a year older than his brother (both of them grandsons of elder Dave Courchene, founder of the Turtle Lodge and winner of an Indspire Award this year), also expressed surprise.
“We just put this group together for this competition,” he marveled.
So how did they manage to get themselves named the grand winners?
“They told us we had charm and we had heart,” Brandon Courchene said. “And they told us they liked us because we’re all pretty good boys and that we are entertaining.”
Sagkeeng’s Finest gave their final performance on the show on Sunday. They were declared the winners the following night during the results broadcast after viewers voted on their favorite acts by phone or through various other social media networks.
By winning, the members of Sagkeeng’s Finest were awarded plenty of cash and other valuable prizes. For starters, they’ll be splitting $100,000. They also won a Nissan GT-R sports car valued at $105,000. O’Laney is the only one of the three who actually has his driver’s license. And he said the plan is to sell the car.
“You can’t split the car three ways,” he said.
They also won a trip for four to Tobago, an opportunity to perform at a club in Las Vegas and a guest appearance on a Toronto televised New Year’s Eve show, among other prizes.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo was among those who offered congratulations to the trio.
“This is truly a positive expression of art and culture by First Nation young people and an exceptional demonstration of support by the Canadian public,” he said in a statement. “These young men are tremendous role models for all youth as beacons of hope and opportunity. They believed in themselves, worked extremely hard and have achieved incredible success. Their talents, determination and enthusiasm are inspiring to all First Nation peoples and clearly all of Canada.”
Ed Robinson, the executive producer of Canada’s Got Talent (the Canadian version of the British franchise, which also includes America’s Got Talent), was also impressed with the group. He too felt that they are outstanding role models for all Canadian youth.
“Their spirit captured the hearts of the nation, and their story is a testament to what hard work, dedication and commitment can achieve,” Robinson said. “We are proud to bring this unique act to a national stage.”
Here is video of their final performance, and below that, the results.