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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Montreal First Peoples Festival wows record crowds with international flavours

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 30, 2019

“The women who did the haka – wow!”

Maori musician, Mama Mihirangi

As the sun set on another successful Montreal First Peoples Festival, held August 6-14, it was time to reflect on what was perhaps the biggest and best edition so far. This year saw an extra day of activities on the main stage at Place des Festivals, record-breaking attendance at numerous film screenings, and an expanded visual arts component at various galleries and venues.

“Everything was almost perfect,” co-founder André Dudemaine told the Nation after the previous night’s closing party, which celebrated 15 years of Wakiponi’s mobile filmmaking studios. “This year we have made another step further. We had more public, more stability and more attendance at each component of the festival.”

He was pleased about receiving coverage in the “mainstream colonial media” after years of being boycotted and negotiating a new agreement with the festival’s biggest sponsor, Quebecor. From the opening night’s world premiere of Santiago Bertolino’s documentary about Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Nin E Tepueian (My Cry), the festival attracted impressive crowds.

“It was really a great start – we had to turn away almost 100 people because it was a full house,” said Dudemaine. “Then the day after, to see 700 women following the haka workshop with Mihirangi, it was so beautiful to see that strength and those voices. This was one of the great moments of the festival.”

Dudemaine discovered the Maori musician and her traditional female dancers, Mama Mihirangi & the Mareikura, at an international music conference in Montreal last February. Besides two concerts on August 8, Mihirangi led an all-female workshop demonstrating the haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge characterized by its vigorous movements and fierce expressions.

“The women who did the haka – wow!” Mihirangi told the Nation. “The experience was just for connecting with themselves as women and seeing their power and courage. Cultural misappropriation is something that can happen out of these workshops, so I made clear this was not for them to perform at parties or teach anyone else. They honoured the agreement of being fully present in that moment and it meant a lot.”

Mihirangi sees herself as part of a global movement of Indigenous artists presenting ancestral earth-based practices in contemporary ways.

“I believe it’s becoming so celebrated right now because the masses are greatly disconnected from the earth,” said Mihirangi. “There’s more of a need right now for us to step up as Indigenous people and use our traditional beliefs and moral compass to help humanity through this period. It’s time to stand up powerfully, take a real risk prepared to be knocked down but still take that risk.”

Also fantastic was Katia Makdissi-Warren’s Nunavik-Mongolia throat singing show earlier that night, keeping audiences spellbound throughout the Place des Festivals. Unfortunately, the following night’s star-studded Nikamotan event with Lido Pimienta and Pierre Kwenders was beset by heavy rain, which started and ended precisely at the show’s scheduled time.

“This was sad because it was unique, specially made for this moment,” Dudemaine lamented. “The show must go on and it did but obviously the attendance was not what it would have been.”

Leela Gilday was one of the dedicated few witnessing that night’s inspiring collaborations despite getting “soaked to the bone.” The Dene-Canadian singer/songwriter from Yellowknife received clearer skies when she played songs from her new album Sunday night.

“The joy of music is we access those deeper levels to take you out of your own worldview and bring you to understand where somebody else is truly coming from,” Gilday told the Nation before singing a sample of new single, Falling Star. “The chorus is based on a traditional Dene tea dance slowed down. That’s a good example of how I incorporate who I am naturally in my songwriting.”

Beautiful music could also be found outside the main stage at Makusham! – a continuation of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with the Indigenous community. Led by Innu musician-laureate Florent Vollant, singers Moe Clark and Scott Pien Picard and three symphony musicians joined him for what Clark called “an enlivening experience.”

“Blair Thomson arranged eight pieces, from Innu and Cree drum songs, traditional Kashtin tunes, to I Find Grace – a gospel contemporary piece that was on my album in 2014,” Clark explained. “The audience stood up and sang with us, ready to sing, laugh, cry, give of their energy and witness the coming together.”

The festival is becoming an important showcase for international films, and high attendance this year reflected that. Among the top award winners were Quentura (Rigoberta Menchu Award – social prize), Lapü  (Teueikan Award – artist prize) and Falls Around Her (APTN Award).

“We had several sold-out screenings and all the screenings were well attended,” said Dudemaine. “You could feel the public was very enthusiastic – you could see the stars in the eyes when they were coming out of screenings.”

The Nuestroamericana Friendship Parade on Saturday afternoon was certainly a festival highlight, featuring colourfully costumed participants showcasing dances and traditions from around the world. A new parade route this year coming up St-Laurent to Place des Festivals was so successful that Dudemaine suggested it will become a permanent fixture.

Visual and media arts had a larger presence at the festival this year, including exhibitions by Meky Ottawa, Jay Soule and Hannah Claus. There was also a new focus on two-spirited peoples, which included short films, conferences and exhibitions from Adrian Stimson and Ma-Nee Chacaby.

Stimson’s work often investigates identity construction while employing sly humour to challenge colonialism. The Blackfoot artist’s latest performance, Naked Napi Big Game Hunter, reimagines traditional stories in a contemporary intersection of Indigeneity and sexuality.

“Within a lot of our communities, we have this trickster character meant to be a teaching tool,” said Stimson. “Humour is a great tool to use, because it opens up people with the tickle and slap method – tickle first and then you slap them enough to say look at the issues.”

The talented artists involved with Montreal First Peoples Festival celebrate their Indigenous roots in different ways, manifesting Fontaine’s words that opened the official program: “A call arises in me and I decided to say yes to my birth.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.