When the Montreal First Peoples Festival first came on the scene, there were few opportunities in this city to discover indigenous culture locally or internationally. Although there were a few one-time events, there was no organization with an annual program dedicated to celebrating the cultural diversity of Montreal and the heritage of First Peoples of the Americas.
“It was right after the Oka crisis, the climate was not very cooperative, so we were the only window,” recalls André Dudemaine, who, along with Daniel Corvec and Pierre Thibault founded the fest in 1991. Now in its 26th edition, its board of directors includes people from Mohawk, Huron-Wendat, Algonquin, Atikamekw and Innu First Nations.
Though it began as a film festival, mostly screening documentaries at the NFB theatre on St. Denis, the event quickly expanded to including crafts, visual arts, music and dance, as native artists heard of the event and wanted to participate.
In the beginning media coverage was slow in coming. “Even when we grew, we never got the attention that a festival of our size and importance would get,” Dudemaine said.
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“It is difficult to say why, perhaps they didn’t know how to speak of First Nations, preferring not to speak of them, sometimes.”
But since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed the little known history of the residential schools and its effect on aboriginal people, Dudemaine has noticed a change. “Now we have better coverage, since the [TRC] report. It has really shaken Canadians, especially the very strong statement about cultural genocide. It has affected journalists and now they try to be more open to the expression of aboriginal opinion and cultures.”
The founders see themselves as cultural ambassadors who build bridges between Montrealers and First Nations cultures around the world. From August 3 to 10 there will be a range of events at several venues including the opening film 100 Tikis by Dan Taulappapa McMullin, who will be present at the screening. Other works screened with the directors present are Mekko, by Sterlin Harjo from the Seminole nation, and Chasing the Light by Blackhorse Lowe. Several films from South America will be screened as well.
In partnership with the Canadian Guild of Crafts the festival presents, Abenaki artist Sylvain Rivard in Pulpe Fiction, using ancient techniques and mixed media such as paper and bark.
Music featuring a mix of traditional and modern styles will be performed by the Juno award-winning Digging Roots, singing in English and Anishinabemowin. Other musicians are Shauit, the Innu singer with a reggae vibe, Alexander Jerome, a Micmac electronic music composer, and Kawandak led by arranger and double bass player Normand Guilbeault, and Logan Staats, a Mohawk author-composer-performer.
A traveling art exhibit will come from Kawawachikamach (Naskapi Nation) in mid-July and arrive to Montreal in time for the Festival.
At the Grande Blibliothèque, Aug. 3-10. Info: 514-278-4040, presenceautochtone.ca.