First edition of the Eeyou Nigamuun Festival rocks Whapmagoostui

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Accessible only by air or by ship in late summer, organizing events in the northernmost Eeyou Istchee community of Whapmagoostui is no easy feat. However, that didn’t stop a dedicated group of community members from launching an ambitious five-day music festival over the Canada Day weekend.

The first edition of the Eeyou Nigamuun Festival is being hailed as a major success, drawing hundreds of people to the Samson Dick Memorial Arena from June 27-July 1 to enjoy over 20 popular acts, including Kashtin, KXO, Cree Rising, Fort George Rockers, Northstars, Violent Ground and CerAmony.

A message on the event’s Facebook page expressed deep gratitude to community members, sponsors and the hardworking team that made the festival possible. The talented performers are credited with bringing “excitement, tears of joy, exuberant dancing, laughter, happiness, love and incredible healing for the community.”

Grateful for the support he received following his cancer diagnosis and inspired partly by the long-running Festival Innu Nikamu in Sept-Îles, Larry Wapachee brought the idea of a grand festival to the community’s youth council in February. He initially proposed a “three-in-one” event, including a square-dancing competition and a powwow, but with limited planning time it was decided to focus on the music festival for its inaugural edition.

While festivals of this size sometimes take a year to organize, Eeyou Nigamuun came together very quickly, with the lineup only being confirmed after Goose Break and the final budget even later.

“I was quite nervous that nobody would show up,” stated Benjamin Masty, WFN Youth Coordinator and one of the event’s planners. “After the first night when people got wind of it, each night got better and better. The last night was packed for headliners Kashtin, everyone knew them from the 1990s. It gave me goose bumps how everyone was so involved.”

Before Kashtin’s triumphant performance, which was capped by a triple encore, the crowd went crazy when Innu band Gregoire Boyz came out unexpectedly. Everyone danced and cheered so much for their hit song Sons of Labrador that they came back out and played it again to the same rapturous response.

Gregoire Boyz had actually been scheduled to play the day before but were forced to cancel due to flight unavailability. By a stroke of luck, the band Innutin were given the wrong return flight but had connections with a private airline, whose pilot coordinated to have the Gregoire Boyz picked up in Goose Bay, Newfoundland.

“The biggest issue was travel arrangements,” Masty confirmed. “We ran into a lot of walls but managed to hurdle most of them.”

When Masty spoke with the Nation, the fireworks planned for Canada Day had still not arrived – a common occurrence in Whapmagoostui. However, the celebrations did include Labrador tea picking, outdoor games and a community barbecue.

While Chibougamau-based Gauthier Musique did great work managing the sound and lighting, bringing the necessary equipment into the isolated community implies significant freight costs and other expenses. The organizers hope to work with industry partners and funding bodies to secure permanent equipment for future events, perhaps even a circus tent that would enable outdoor shows.

“There are a lot of possibilities for different stuff we can do next year, especially if we team up with the Inuit community,” said Masty. That’s because many of the suitable spots to host outdoor events are the jurisdiction of neighbouring Kuujjuarapik.

About 1000 Cree live in Whapmagoostui while around 700 Inuit live in Kuujjuarapik, a unique cohabitation arrangement of two nations on the Hudson Bay coast. The Wild Berry Festival, organized by the region’s Inuit community each year – with berry picking contests, games and music – was one of Eeyou Nigamuun’s inspirations.

With an eye already on next year’s festival, the future looks bright for entertainment in Whapmagoostui.

The tremendous outpouring of community support demonstrated the importance of music for celebration, bringing back memories and healing. Masty received many comments from those who felt the presence of loved ones that had passed on but were there in spirit, including the story of a mother whose young daughter looked at the arena’s ceiling at one point and seemed to see her deceased grandmother.

“Our community is going through a lot of social issues,” said Masty. “We heard a lot of people saying that this event really was a healing process for them. It’s just proof that music brings people together.”


Photos by Ben Masty

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