Holland Marsh native, composer strikes chord with Order of Canada

John Estacio grew up in a farming family, but music was always his passion; First instrument he learned to play was the accordion in 1977

Holland Marsh native John Estacio was recently awarded the Order of Canada for his work as a composer and contributions to Canadian opera. 

On Dec. 29, 2021, Governor-General Mary Simon announced 135 appointments to the Order of Canada. 

The Order of Canada is one of the country’s highest civilian honours, created in 1967 to recognize outstanding achievement in the community and service to the nation. 

“Canada is defined by the people that make up this great country. These most recent nominees to the Order of Canada are shining examples of the commitment and outstanding contributions Canadians have made to the well-being of communities throughout this land, whether it be social, environmental, scientific, economic, cultural or related to mental and physical health. To all of the nominees, congratulations and thank you,” said Simon. 

Appointees to the Order of Canada wear a striking, six-point white enamel insignia that symbolizes Canada’s northern heritage and diversity because no two snowflakes are alike.

Estacio has been living in Edmonton, Alta., since 1992 working as a composer, but grew up in the Holland Marsh with his family, growing carrots and vegetables on the family farm. 

His passion for music and the arts started at a young age. 

“As a young child I was sort of always drawn to it, always curious about it,” he said.

Living in a farming community, most of the exposure he got to music came from TV and radio.

“I knew at the time I enjoyed being around music-making and listening to live music,” he said. 

His sister, Mary Marques, who still lives in the area, says she always knew her brother was talented and has “music in his veins.” She recalled one summer when the family was out farming together, when John went “missing,” only to later be found in the middle of the carrot patch playing his toy guitar and singing. 

“I can still see my mom with her hands in the air, worried as to where her child was, and here he was singing his little heart out and playing his guitar,” said Marques. “From a very young age, he was born with music in his system, and it still carries through to today.”

The first instrument he learned to play was the accordion, in 1977. The lessons were held in the basement of the Presbyterian church on John Street in Bradford. 

His parents purchased him the accordion for the lessons, but it was the organ at the church that he really wanted to play. He went on to teach himself how to play the instrument, then started playing the organ at Sunday mass at the Holy Martyrs of Japan Church in Bradford. 

From there, he learned how to play the piano. At the time, his family didn’t have the means to purchase a piano, so he would go to the neighbour’s house across the street to use theirs twice a week after school. 

“The touch of a piano is different than any other keyboard instrument… you have to develop that touch with your fingers and develop the dexterity,” he explained. 

He worked and saved up enough money to purchase his own piano and eventually went on to attend Wilfrid Laurier Universitt majoring in music composition, then the University of British Columbia for his master’s in music. 

He moved back to Ontario for a year after completing his master’s degree, before accepting a residency position with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. 

He has composed music for the Calgary Philharmonic, the Calgary Opera, and Pro Coro Canada and enjoys writing his own operas. 

Some of his works have even been performed in New York City at the famous Carnegie Hall. Throughout his career, he has also been the recipient of countless awards including the National Arts Centre Awards for Composers and the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award. He was also nominated for a Juno Award in 2015 for his composition Triple Concerto. 

Estacio said he was surprised when he found out about his appointment. 

“I thought it was a telemarketer,” he said with a laugh while remembering when he first got the call about it in the fall. 

“It’s exciting and bewildering at the same time,” he said of the recognition. “It’s work, it’s a job I love doing. Making music and making opera and telling relevant stories on the operatic stage are all things I love doing.”

He is committed to continuing to tell stories of history and current affairs through opera. 

“I feel like I have to earn this honour,” he said. 

While the performing arts sector has been severely affected by COVID, Estacio has been keeping busy with virtual performances and some in-person, as permitted. 

His inspiration for his works comes from relevant stories that he feels need to be shared with the world. His first opera was about the last woman in Alberta who was executed. His current opera is about Igor Gouzenko, the Russian intelligence officer who defected to the Canadian government his country had been spying on them, along with Britain and the U.S, which led to the start of the Cold War. 

“If you look at today’s politics and what’s going on in the world today, that’s still a relevant story,” he said. “I want to make sure that storytelling thought music is still an integral part of our culture.”

Estacio still visits home in the Holland Marsh now and again to visit his sister, family and friends. His last visit was in August for his mother’s birthday. The family farm is now owned and run by his nephew, Robert Marques, and his wife Shannon. 

Estacio looks forward to receiving his award at the Order of Canada official ceremony in person, which has been postponed to a later date due to COVID restrictions. 

To learn more about Estacio and his work, visit his website here

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