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Montreal’s First Peoples’ Festival features multi-disciplinary arts, culture and fun

MONTREAL – Indigenous films and videos; paintings, sculptures, baskets and pottery; demonstrations of stone cutting, totem making and other traditional artisan skills; workshops, lectures, forums and storytelling; networking with indigenous peoples from the other side of the nearby river to as far away as Polynesia; hundreds of musicians, singers and dancers making music so joyful and compelling that the audience got on its feet and danced, were all part of a summer solstice ceremony.

These were some of the events that took place June 11 – 21 during Montreal’s First Peoples’ Festival, a showcase of aboriginal art, history and traditions both old and new. The annual event is a one-of-a-kind multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary celebration of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island and around the world.

The festival began with films June 11 and ended with a ceremony in the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Gardens, celebrating the summer solstice June 21, National Aboriginal Day in Canada, which was created by the federal government “to recognize the unparalleled contributions Indians, Inuit, and Metis have made to the development of Canada.”

But a list of activities cannot convey the spirit of this unique festival, which features a week-and-a-half of event-packed days and nights in a variety of venues in and around Émilie-Gamelin Park in central downtown Montreal and in the neighboring Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. Here’s how the organizers in part described this year’s event in a combination of poetic imagery and political activism:

“From time immemorial, the sky and its starry signposts have guided humans across the tundra and shown the way to the seafaring peoples of the Pacific Ocean. Today, the celestial vault watches over the fragile garden that constitutes our earthly habitat. More than ever, the sense of resilience, the survival instinct that leads us to recognize our essential ties with other species of creation, appears as the necessary compass pointing the way to humanity’s common future,” the event program reads.

The festival is “a celebration leading us to the Solstice, to the light, to the rebirth of days. The international community has solemnly recognized indigenous peoples’ rights in a declaration that the current Canadian government did its utmost to put off signing indefinitely.

“The festival, a vital expression of human solidarity and congenial fellowship, strongly endorses the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador’s campaign for Canada to restore its lost honor by signing – better late than never – the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The radiant sky invites us to hold our heads high. The drum of solidarity is sounding the call: let the ritual celebration of the deep roots of life begin!”

The festival started with a wealth of aboriginal films and videos by filmmakers from nearby nations, tribal nations in the U.S, Mexico, South America and French Polynesia.

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Filmmaking was at the heart of the festival from its beginning in 1990, said Benoit Loyer (Micmac), a communications consultant for Land InSights, a nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1990 to promote and showcase indigenous art and culture. Land InSights is the organizing and driving force behind the festival, and $800,000 event that is supported by local, provincial and federal grants, and dozens of private businesses and non-governmental organizations. Land InSights is overseen by an 11-member board that includes non-Natives and members from the Mohawk, Huron-Wendat, Abenaki, Innu and Cree nations. The organization was founded by Andre Dudemaine (Innu) and Daniel Corvec, both filmmakers.

“Andre Dudemaine, one of the founders of Land InSight, is a film guy and there were a lot of indigenous filmmakers around at the time who were making videos and shorts, and experimenting with features, and we wanted to give them a voice, give them exposure. So the festival was only film for the first five or six years and then some people started to say we ought to give exposure to dancers and musicians and artists, too. And that started happening gradually and now it’s 19 years later – how time flies – and it’s a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural festival,” Loyer said.

More than 50 films – documentaries and features – were screened. In addition to the screenings, more than one dozen invited filmmakers took part in side events such as lectures, workshops and forums.

While film screenings continued throughout the festival, during the last three days the focus shifted to events in the Émilie-Gamelin Park where visitors could view an exhibit of giant photos; a demonstration by sculptors and print-makers including a group of Ma’ohis from French Polynesia; artistic beadwork by Mohawk and Abenaki craftswomen; and flint stone cutting by archaeologists using the stonecutting techniques of ancient Amerindians.

Visitors could spend afternoons participating in traditional songs and dances or checking out a display of Sequoia beauty products from a Kahnawake company. There were music shows every afternoon and night featuring First Nations dancers and drums playing traditional style and rhythms fused with reggae, Latin, and other musical styles that had audiences dancing the night away. The evenings wrapped up with film screenings under the stars.

The Ma’ohis from French Polynesia were at the festival because each year, the organizers invite a group of indigenous people from a faraway place to attend.

This year marked the 19th annual First Peoples’ Festival and the organizers are already planning ahead for next year’s 20th anniversary, which promises to be even more diverse.

The First Peoples’ Festival is not as big as Montreal’s famous Jazz Festival, which draws an estimated two million people a year, Loyer said.

“But it’s been growing every year. Montreal is the city of festivals. It’s 10 days to say, ‘We’re here, this is what’s going on, things are moving.’ We have new artists emerging every day and we’re proud of that and we want to share that with the world.”