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First Peoples' Festival Featured Indigenous Culture in a Cityscape

MONTREAL—The Montreal First Peoples’ Festival—the city’s signature celebration of indigenous peoples’ art, history and cultures—took place in a brand new outdoor festival space that juxtaposed Indian tipis against a backdrop of high rise buildings in the heart of the downtown area.

The Place des Festivals is a huge city block area that has been specially created with fountains, dramatic lighting, built-in benches on the side, and a grassy area with a few trees lending a touch of the natural world to the cityscape of buildings surrounding the site.

The plaza accommodates the many famous international festivals that take place in the city each summer, including the Montreal Jazz Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people.

For the First Peoples’ Festival, the Places des Festivals was magically transformed with the installation of a huge tipi, and various representations of Native art and animal symbols—a brightly colored turtle placed in the center of a circle of fountains that lit up at night, sculptures of moose and caribou, and massive concrete caribou heads.

It was the perfect venue for the 20th anniversary of the First Peoples’ Festival as the event expands onto the international scene.

“This year we think will be a demonstration of our savoir faire in the hugest place in Montreal and that will be a stepping stone of opportunity for a fantastic growth of the festival,” said Andre Dudemaine, Innu, the co-founder and director of Land InSights, a nonprofit organization that organizes and sponsors the festival.

Land InSights promotes indigenous cultures by spotlighting the artistic and cultural productions of indigenous peoples in films and documentaries, literature, stories, languages, the visual arts, music and dance.

The weekend celebration of live performances and family activities took place August 6–8, kicking off after dark on Friday August 6 with a concert-and-movie event on a stage built within an enormous tipi to protect the stage and all its electronic equipment from bad weather.

The movie was Robert Flaherty's classic silent film Nanook of the North, which was shown on a huge screen at the back of the stage. The 1922 documentary depicts a year in the life of Nanook, an Eskimo (Inuit) and his family, describing the trading, hunting, fishing and migrations of a group untouched by the “advances” of the developed world. The groundbreaking film was praised in its time as the first full-length, anthropological documentary in cinematographic history.

At the front of the stage, musician Gabriel Thibaudeau conducted an octet of musicians and singers who performed the score he had written for the film. Thibaudeau is one of the world’s best-known silent-film accompanists.

The concert featured the unique art of Inuit throat singing, a style said to have been developed by women to entertain themselves when their men were off hunting. Written into Thibaudeau’s score were sections in which two women singers would perform the singing. The women stood facing each other and clasped arms. One woman would lead by making short breathing sounds that the other woman would echo giving the effect of non-stop sounds. The women swayed as they sang.

On Saturday, events began in the afternoon with a program called Boreades de la danse that featured dance troupes from Bolivia, Canada and Mexico.

On Sunday morning, visitors strolled along the Artisans Promenade, a row of tipis and tents on the grassy hill at the side of the festival place where artists and crafts people demonstrated their traditional skills in basket-weaving, carving, beading and sculpting.

Annette Nolette, an Abenaki basket-maker from Odanak, was making and selling her traditional black ash and sweet grass baskets -- exquisite constructions that use braided sweet grass. She was taught the craft by her grandmother, and was accompanied at the festival by her granddaughter.

“We have to pass it on because there aren’t that many people who continue making them right now on the reserve where we live,” Nolette said.

Under a canopy nearby were the husband and wife team of Isabelle Courtois and Jean Pierre Fontaine, artists and artisans who work in clay, paint, sculpture, and use animal skins to make sacred drums. The couple make presentations in schools, at conferences, expos and other events through their organization Ashukan.

“Ashukan means a bridge between two cultures, because I’m from France and my husband is Native Anisheniu, from the northern coast of Quebec. We’ve been working together for 12 years to promote indigenous culture and build a bridge between the cultures,” Courtois said.

The three-day celebration was the culmination of the cultural festival that began in June and centered around a film festival – the origins of the First Peoples’ Festival. The film festival included screenings of dozens of feature films, documentaries, shorts and experimental films with panel discussions, workshops and presentations by filmmakers from North and South America.

On display throughout the festival and beyond is an exhibition at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (Quebec Library and Archives) called Nomade/Matshinanu of archival quality photos blown up to a huge size, depicting scenes from the every day life of the nomadic Innu life accompanied by poems written by Innu poet Josephine Bacon.

The festival concluded on Sunday afternoon with “a kind of reenactment of what should have happened, instead of what happened” when Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve founded Montreal in May 1642, Dudemaine said.

The ceremony involved the unveiling of “the largest wampum in the world,” and was a collaboration between a local traditional Mohawk community and a Quebecer who has been promoting friendship with First nations. The Quebecer dressed in the part of de Maisonneuve for the theatrical production.