The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal


Sutter guitar photoMG 1734Sandra Sutter performing a song in her work place's spirit room. Photo by Sara Aldred.

On Cluster Stars, Sandra Sutter’s debut album, she explores her Indigenous heritage by telling the stories of others, and hopes the record will inspire Indigenous youth to pursue their own dreams as well.

As a Métis musician, Sutter performs songs related to past and current Indigenous issues to better understand her roots.

“I want to honour where I come from, that's where I feel connected,” says Sutter.

Adopted into a non-Indigenous family as a baby, Sutter has always felt different than her siblings.

“I was lucky because my family were very good people, very down to earth. And we had a very close group of family members, cousins and relatives and all of those we were able to spend a lot of time with. But as loved as a person is, and I was very lucky in the situation I was in, I just never felt like I belonged. I was always attracted to the land.”

Later on in life, Sutter wanted to find her Indigenous roots. Her adoptive parents were supportive in helping her find her birth family. Unfortunately, since her mother wasn’t in the birth registry, and her father had died before she turned 18, she was unable to connect with her biological parents. However, with the help of a friend, Sutter was able to locate members of her extended biological family.

For Sutter, her Métis background has had a large influence when it comes to music, so it naturally flows together for her. Sutter’s album, Cluster Stars, was written to help bring an understanding to Indigenous issues and help people see through the eyes of an Indigenous woman.

“I think it's in our heartbeat, the drums replicate our mother's heartbeat, our heartbeat and the heartbeat of mother earth,” says Sutter.

With organizations such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Idle No More and court cases involving Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie, there’s a lot of coverage for conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. When Sutter wrote Cluster Stars, her vision was acceptance and ultimately peace between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“I chose the songs that dealt with specific issues that impact Indigenous people: the 60’s scoop, murdered and missing women, veterans, and how women end up feeling like we're not enough. And nature, you know, the nature of the people. So all of those things that impact us, we need to find a positive resolution for them.”

Sutter adds she still experiences occasional racism and despite being a confident women, it still hurts.

"I think people are afraid of what they don't know and Indigenous people don't see the world the same way as non-Indigenous people see it. Our experience is not the same, but we have so many gifts to give to other cultures." -Sandra Sutter

Tweela Nepoose, Sutter’s friend, says that when she first heard a snippet of the new album, her eyes lit up.

“She tells those stories and those songs like everyone else, like any other artist does; but she tells it from an Indigenous heritage. She has a finesse of bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Nepoose says

Kevin Watson, another friend of Sutter’s, explains how she’s inspired by her own culture.

“I saw that kind of evolution and growth in Sandra, to discovering her roots, to discovering her Métis heritage, and then putting that together with the musical and lyrical talents that she always had.”

Indigenous youth are treasured within Indigenous communities, as are elders, but for quite different reasons. Sutter says that youth are the future of their communities and she’s very excited from what she sees from young people today because they’re more likely to become successful in their careers. She adds that having success allows Indigenous youth to return to their communities and contribute back to the wellness of their homes.

“I get to talk to youth, and there's nothing more amazing in our world-the potential of youth and their closeness to the Creator. They get to experience the world and create something beautiful and new.”   

By increasing Indigenous representation in mainstream media, Sutter and other Indigenous artists have paved the way for Indigenous youth to be more accepted in society, inspiring them to pursue their own dreams.  

By having songs that speak about Indigenous issues, Sutter helps people understand the pain Indigenous people have gone through for hundreds of years. The bridge she speaks of between Indigenous and non-Indigenous is being built, slowly but surely.

“That message has to speak to all of us because social issues that impact Indigenous peoples, they impact everyone. It's like the talk of truth and reconciliation, a conversation for all of us.”

Sutter’s album, Cluster Stars, is available to stream on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.

Jennifer Schlese graduated in 1998 with a diploma in youth care work from what was then Mount Royal College. Staying in the field for 15 years, Schlese loved working with families, kids and having an impact on people’s lives.

“It filled me up,” she says. “It really did.”

But Schlese’s life began to change in August 2017, when she was driving through Rogers Pass, B.C.

Just as Schlese reached the peak of the pass, something happened.

“It was like an explosion in my head,” Schlese recalls. “I blacked out. I couldn’t see.”

That moment led to a change in Schlese’s career, with her grandma’s recipe providing the inspiration for Cookies by Jen.

The life-altering brain injury

Travelling past Revelstoke, B.C., Schlese had her 11-year-old son, Cole, and two dogs in the car. When they reached the peak height of the pass, Schlese experienced a blinding explosion in her head.

With no cell reception to call for help, Schlese had to inch her way down the mountain, frequently stopping to pull over. She, Cole and their companions found help in Golden, B.C. four hours later.

Help came in the form of a very kind nurse named Linda Amico. With Schlese, her son and the dogs trapped in Golden, Amico offered to drive them home to Airdrie, Alta.

Once home, Schlese suffered symptoms of vertigo, imbalance and depression. “It is like you are wearing somebody else's prescription glasses,” she says.

She was diagnosed with a brain injury, resulting from a non-impact concussion. “It was like my life was taken away from me,” she says. “I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t do laundry. I couldn’t do dishes.”

Because of her symptoms, Schlese knew her career in youth-care work was over. “Right then and there I had to stop,” she says. 

But, as Schlese points out, “When one door closes, a window always opens.” And Schlese’s window was her grandma’s Spritzgeback cookie recipe.

The cookie adventure begins

By November 2017, some of Schlese’s vertigo symptoms had gone away, but she was still battling depression.

To fight off the blues, Schlese dug out her grandma’s old Christmas cookie recipe, threw on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and started baking.

Soon after, the community began to react.

“You should start selling these cookies,” Schlese kept hearing. And before long people were lining up at her door, eager to taste this German-style cookie.

Image 3 CookiesbyJen EasterThese festive Easter cookies are only a small part of what Jennifer Schlese bakes for her business. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Schlese

As demand kept growing, Schlese’s daughter, Kelsie, urged her to get on social media. “Well, you need to be on Facebook,” she said. “This is the 20th Century, Mom. Get with it.”

The resulting Cookies by Jen page exploded, giving Schlese both a boost in confidence and in her business.

She set up booths at Calgary and Airdrie school markets. For Christmas 2018, she made it to her biggest market yet, The Crossfield Farmers Market.

The market circuit has been a positive experience for Schlese in other ways as well. She formed a new friendship with Cora Thiessen, owner of Cora's Cosy Book Corner.

Thiessen remembers meeting Schlese at the Heart of the Community market in Airdrie.

“We got talking, and we are both very upbeat in terms of drawing people in…and trying to connect with people,” Thiessen says.

Thiessen describes how she and her son coordinated a book fundraiser for the neonatal intensive care unit at the Rockyview Hospital.

When Thiessen asked Cookies by Jen for a donation, Schlese jumped at the chance.

“She donated 33 snack packs for the bundles,” Thiessen says. “She’s just a super thoughtful person with her business, and I think that is what brings abundance to her.”

But as Schlese grows her business, some of the challenges of selling at farmers’ markets are presented.

“When you sell a food product it is a bit trickier,” she says. “You need to be certified. You need to take your Alberta Health certification and food safety course and everything costs money.”

Connecting with customers

Selling her cookies at the schools and farmers’ markets have led to some amazing things happening.

“You get to interact and meet so many different people and so many families in almost the same way as when I was a youth-care worker,” she says.

Image 4 Jen Schlese with daughter KelsieJennifer Schlese can be at many different markets with her Cookies by Jen booth. Here she is seen with her daughter Kelsie at a school market. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Schlese

Cheryl Schreiber, a customer of Cookies by Jen, shares how her then five-year-old daughter, Aubrie, enjoyed her first authentic German Spritzgeback.

“Aubrie is autistic and non-verbal. She has a lot of sensory issues and food is one of the biggest ones. She has a very, very select diet.” 

Schreiber explains how Aubrie only consumes about 10 to 15 items in total, and that is including both foods and liquids.

Schreiber bought the maple-infused Spritzgeback cookies and had them sitting on a table. “[Aubrie] came over all on her own and was playing with it and ended up eating it, and then she came back and got another one.”

It was an amazing feeling for Schreiber to see her daughter try something new — and really enjoy it.

Dreams for the future

When asked about the future of Cookies by Jen, Schlese talks about her dreams.
“It would be really nice to win the lottery and start a bakery,” she says. “You go to your bakery, turn on some music, bake your cookies there, sell your cookies there, have a little coffee shop.”

Thiessen agrees that the youth-care worker in Schlese combined with her baking abilities would make for a great outreach-style cafe.

“I could see her having a community place where everyone feels like they are welcome; nobody feels like they have to leave after they finish their coffee.”

Cookies by Jen is really heating up. And although Schlese feels the door has closed on her career as a youth-care worker, she has found new relationships and families to connect with through Cookies by Jen.

“The youth-care worker in me hasn't left,” she says. “She is just doing cookies. She is meeting families and spreading joy through the cookies this time.”

Editor: Brittany Willsie | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sonia Holwegner has a busy house with her seven kids, but she and her family have taken on a new responsibility: raising a guide dog puppy for the visually impaired.
As a child, Jeff Faragher was severely burned and told he would likely never hold a pencil.

Despite his physical challenges, he has established a successful career as a cellist and music teacher, recently playing as a soloist for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.