First Peoples Festival.
Montreal gives the impression of a place that has taken the best of its European roots from the French and English – language, food, cafes, universal health care – and left out the bad bits that seem to have developed in their neighbours south of the border – xenophobia, gun crime and imperialism fuelled by the influence on the government of the military-industrial complex.
The Canadian government also gives huge support to the arts. The fact that Celine Dion and Justin Bieber are two of the best-known Canadians is not a reflection on that support. Festivals are the most evident manifestation of this funding, and Montreal is renowned for it is festivals: comedy, jazz and film are all internationally recognised by their Montreal moniker, and there are countless other niche festivals in the city and Quebec region. One such event that recently completed its 24th edition is Présence Autochtone, Montreal First Peoples Festival, which celebrates the cultural heritage of the Americas’ aboriginal nations through film, music, dance and other visual arts.
While an arts festival will never redress the atrocities and injustices meted out to the indigenous people, it is a way to bring awareness of their history and cultural heritage to the wider public, who may be ignorant, or misinformed. For example, the Mohawk nation is matriarchal and worships all aspects of the mother and feminine powers. A spokesman for the Mohawks gave an impassioned plea for stronger cultural ties, and more importantly, that everyone respects women as they are the power and the future of the survival of world.
The festival runs from 30 July until August 5, and befitting a culture that lives in harmony with the land, many of the festival events were held in the open spaces of the relatively new Place des Festivals, with a giant tepee suspended over the plaza.
With the balmy summer weather, it was a perfectly placed setting to attract public attention and discover more about the festival.
The film programme consisted of movies made by, and about, the Aboriginal people, not only of Canada but also from throughout the Americas. These ranged from feature-length dramas and documentaries, to animations and short films that screened before the features.
Music, theatre and dance featured prominently throughout the festival. Whether it was traditional, such as that exhibited by native people from throughout America following the costume parade through Quartier des Spectacles on the Saturday, or contemporary music acts, such as rapper Samian and Inuk singers Beatrice Deer and Sinuupa, who performed free concerts in the plaza.
The Festival’s Closing Night event was a celebration of ten years of Wapikoni, an initiative that enabled First Nation youths to express themselves through audiovisual media. A selection of the impressive 700 short films that have been made over the past decade were screened, some of which have garnered more than 80 awards in film festivals around the world. The films included documentary, fiction and animation. After the screenings, some of the filmmakers spoke about their experiences of working with Wapikoni and how it gave their lives a new direction and purpose, with one of them being accepted into an animation degree course on the strength of his work.
While the festival has to compete with a host of other festivals and events that happen in the city over the same period, the cinema screenings and outdoor shows were very well attended, no doubt aided by their very visible presence in Downtown Montreal. The festival’s remit of raising awareness of the cultural heritage of the First Nations certainly seemed to have been a success, but one does get the feeling that they have a lot more to teach us when we are ready to truly listen.