Streams of culture from across the Americas united at Montreal’s First Peoples Festival August 9-18 to embrace defiance, joy and hope in a celebration of Indigenous art and sovereignty.
“We are living in a historical moment,” commented founder André Dudemaine during a rousing speech at the opening ceremony. “All of us being here tonight is tangible proof of solidarity and of progress. We are stronger when we are holding each other up.”
The event was filled with storytelling, laughter and idea sharing as people from all walks of life enjoyed a traditional menu of bear meat pastry rolls, deer meatballs, fried blueberry bannock and Labrador tea.
Mistissini’s Bedabin Coon, who volunteered to help serve food that evening, said community involvement is vital to the success of these cultural events.
“I saw what happened with the Pride Festival [parade] getting cancelled and I thought, ‘I can’t let that happen here, I can’t let them down’. I decided to volunteer…I wanted to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
Working with Coon was Véronique, an Anishinaabe woman from Rigaud, who said that volunteering for the opening ceremony was a way to express her pride in traditional Indigenous foods and culture.
“We enjoyed preparing all this food together and now everyone’s happy,” she said, noting that no spices were added to the bear meat because “the flavour speaks for itself.”
The evening flowed with conversation as organizers, filmmakers, artists and invitees populated the room with ever-changing circles of conversation and laughter.
In one circle, Mi’gmaq singer-songwriter Mack MacKenzie noted how the pandemic – and the social isolation it created – added importance to this year’s festival.
“The pandemic knocked a lot of us [artists] off track, so it feels good to finally be back,” said MacKenzie.
Best known as the frontman of alt-country band Three O’Clock Train, MacKenzie stated that his past two years in Montreal marked the longest time he has stayed in one place.
“My whole life, I have been on the move. Even as a child – I went to 11 different schools, across the Americas. Montreal is a place where I keep coming back to, it is a bit of a resting place for me.”
In the fast-paced industry of art and music, times of rest are as important as action, just as sold-out performances are made possible by the friendships and conversations that happen long before the curtains open. MacKenzie described how reuniting with a family member led him to a traditional Indigenous musical instrument he needed for his show.
“It’s a funny story, but a good lesson,” said MacKenzie. “I was searching for a deer-hoof rattle manufacturer for the longest time but had no luck finding one. Finally, I reconnected with my cousin, Don Patrick Martin, and told him of my need… only to find out that he made the instrument I was searching for!”
MacKenzie said it showed him that “everything we need is around us, we just need to connect more.”
Accompanying MacKenzie was his long-time friend and “unpaid” manager, Marc De Mouy, who he teamed up with in early 1980s.
“Mack has been around a long time, he is a battler and an even better guy,” said De Mouy. “Being his managing partner and providing economic and social support is my way of helping a good friend’s mission in a meaningful way.”
De Mouy said that it’s these “connections, conversations and compassions that lead to the biggest changes.”
The festival is built on such collaboration, both among nations and communities and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. Like the architectural company EVOQ that has given four years of pro bono assistance to Dudemaine’s team at the Place des Festivals location. EVOQ’s Alain Fournier, who has worked alongside First Nation and Inuit communities in building projects for over 40 years, says that his Indigenous work partners showed him that it is a “revolutionary” time for Indigenous sovereignty in Canada.
“It’s evident that this new generation of Indigenous artists and activists simply won’t stand down, they won’t take no for an answer,” he declared. “It’s an exciting time and I am grateful to help out.”
This festival is about more than good memories and musical vibrations, participants agreed. It is about being assertive in expressing Indigenous resilience and resistance. And it’s fertile soil for planting Indigenous history, stories and hope in a land of solidarity.
“When we connect with our roots, we do not do it to look back at the past with nostalgia, we connect to build ourselves stronger, to grow up, and to look towards the future and ring the bell,” asserted Dudemaine. “This festival is a story about a friendship…something that started out small and then grew a lot.”