Drumbeats echoed, dancing filled the Place des Festivals, and children frolicked in the fountains. Once again, Quebec’s summer-festival capital of Montreal was suffused with the colorful sights and rhythmic sounds of aboriginal culture during the first week in August.
Begun 22 years ago, the Montreal First Peoples' Festival might well be nicknamed the Little Festival That Could. From its grassroots origins as a small film festival with outdoor events in a small, intimate square off the beaten path, it has grown into an all-out party of dance, music, gastronomy and film in and around Montreal’s main square. The celebration, which emphasizes French over English in addition to aboriginal languages, has become a go-to spot for hundreds from all facets of life in this French-speaking province.
Ground zero for all the activity was the Place des Festivals, the city’s central hot spot. The plaza contained the most visible of the festival activities and served as their hub over the weekend of August 3 to 5. Performances included a hip-hop extravaganza on August 3 by A Tribe Called Red, the famous aboriginal DJ group, who had attendees rocking out exuberantly to their unique rhythms.
“There was very good attendance at the concerts,” festival organizer André Dudemaine told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s going very well.”
Key to the success of the festival, which ran from July 31 through August 8, was the open, accessible use of the outdoor space, in which the four sacred elements were represented. Fire was conveyed with a torch-cum-bonfire over which geese hung, roasting in traditional aboriginal style. Water danced in the plaza fountains as children splashed and cavorted to take the edge off the summer heat. Mother Earth was represented by caribou effigies grouped around pine trees, creating the illusion of a forest glen.
When it came to air, well, there was plenty of it. The festival organizers conveyed that impression by resisting the temptation to fill every nook and cranny with booths and kiosks and noise. Instead, in somewhat of a minimalist approach, they kept lots of space open. This way attendees could mill around, communicate with one another and drink in the array of carefully chosen cultural offerings.
“We’re going to marry the plaza, not occupy it,” Henry Welsh, a festival spokesman, told ICTMN as participants in the second annual Nuestroamerica Friendship Parade got ready to march.
Anchoring the festival’s hub, as always, was the multicolored turtle holding court amid the plaza’s central fountain. This was, of course, a representation of Turtle Island, the center of indigenous America. The parade showcasing indigenous cultures from all of the Americas commemorated, among other touchstones, the support of countries south of the Rio Bravo that drove the ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
By centering the festival in Montreal’s main plaza, organizers hoped to encourage nonaboriginal passersby to experience the rich varieties of indigenous dance, song and plain old revelry. At one corner of the plaza was a longhouse-styled tent in which short films ran continuously. Kiosks for agencies and groups benefiting aboriginals ringed the plaza, and artisans crafted and sold their wares.
At one end of the space, Shal Malakesh was one of several people who took turns tending the fire pit. The geese would feed festival volunteers and other workers, Malakesh said.
“This is a traditional way of cooking among many tribes,” he told ICTMN.
Onstage, the groups that had marched in the parade, plus their First Nations counterparts, performed dances and songs throughout the weekend days, enticing audience members to join them. And they did: At several points the performers invited people onstage, and at other times they came down into the crowd.
“We were attracted by the music and the tipi,” said Montreal resident Ann-Marie Pepin, relaxing in the Place des Festivals with her husband and two children. “We heard that and followed the music.”
And, although Pepin had not grown up in Native culture, she said that Quebecois are never very far from it.
“All the people here in Quebec have in our ancestry Irish and First Nations,” she said. “When you speak with a Quebecois about ancestry you find First Nation or Irish. My mother says her grandmother is a mix of Abenaki and Quebecois.”