First People’s Festival brings first-rate Aboriginal artists to Montreal

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Summer is the season to relax and enjoy life. One of the best ways to take advantage of the good weather is at Montreal’s First Peoples Festival, which from August 3 to 10 will showcase Indigenous culture makers from around the world.

One of the festival’s most notable acts is Digging Roots, who will play their soulful blues during a free outdoor show August 4. They won a Juno in 2010 and have since toured widely, recently returning from a third trip to Australia.

Digging Roots

Digging Roots

“In Australia we met and hung out with so many Indigenous people,” explained Raven Kanatakta. “We got to share our teachings with each other. The Indigenous people there have so much in common with us.”

Kanatakta grew up in Winneway, an Algonquin community close to Val-d’Or. His wife, ShoShona Kish, is from northern Ontario. “As musicians it’s about honouring our voice. We’re expressive about where we come from and represent a point-of-view that reflects Anishinaabe, Ojibwe Mohawk culture,” said Kanatakta.

Kanatakta says that Digging Roots’ music is a celebration of important “truths” that were demeaned through colonization. “The teachings are about living in harmony among each other,” he said.

That thinking is reflected in the group’s lyrics, which honour the land and Indigenous people’s connection to it. During their shows, they often organize the crowd into a circle, drawing from the powwow tradition and people dance to the beat of a drum. “It’s a unity dance; it brings people together,” said Kanatakta.

The music is fun and danceable. Lyrics address universal themes of love and loss but also tackle political subjects, like violence against women and discrimination. For Kish, these aren’t theoretical problems – she’s experienced them firsthand.

“I was beat up by the police when I was 18, and I’ve experienced violence. Unfortunately, there are very few of us who haven’t. This is part of the Indigenous experience, and we talk about it through music and song,” said Kish.

Though the subject matter of the group’s songs can be dark and challenging, their music is decidedly joyful. It delivers a powerful message – that Indigenous people are resilient in the face of systematic oppression.

Being joyful is an “act of resistance and resilience,” explained Kish. “I feel like the most powerful act of resistance in my life is to be joyful, even when it’s difficult and painful. I don’t mean putting on a happy face and smiling and laughing at everything, I mean being honest, and claiming a joyful place to stand and operate from.”


Innu artist Shauit

Innu reggae and dancehall artist Shauit will also perform. Shauit sings in French and Innu and was featured on Samian’s popular track, Les Nomades. As he’s grown in popularity and collaborated with politically conscious artists, he’s become more thoughtful about his message.

“Before, I talked about mostly personal things and partying. But today I feel like I’m lucky to be heard, and I think it’s more important to have a positive and encouraging message. It’s important for me to contribute to the betterment of our nation. I try to talk about God, the environment, and love.  

Shauit is excited for his August 5 performance. He says the festival an important venue for Indigenous artists to meet and network. He took part in the 2014 edition, which led to a successful collaboration with a Jamaican DJ.

Shauit added that it’s important to show non-Indigenous Quebecers modern-day Indigenous culture. “It’s a great opportunity for us to show what we can do, and to change people’s opinions. It’s important for them to have a window into what we’re doing.”

The festival will also feature the artwork of Sylvain Rivard and his long-time fascination with paper. In his show titled Pulpe Fiction, Rivard will depict figurines of historical and mythological figures he’s created using paper.

artwork by Sylvain Rivard

Rivard said that the look of his work is less important than the material they are created from. “For me, the figures are a way to talk about the fibre. The fibres for me are more important than the images. It’s all about showing the tree.”

Rivard is also helping organize an exhibit on the importance of the ash tree to Abenaki culture. The tree was once common on the island of Montreal, but an insect infestation decimated the Ash population in recent years.

The tree holds particular significance for the Abenaki people, said Rivard, since their teachings say they descended from the tree.

On August 3 and 7 the Place des Festivals will feature demonstrations on how the ash tree was harvested by Abenaki people. The trees will be soaked and pounded, and then peeled before the bark is woven into baskets. An Indigenous biologist will be on hand to give scientific information on the species. And there will be presentations on its historical significance.

Rivard says he hopes his work will encourage Montrealers to look more closely at their environment. He’s saddened by the sight of dead ash trees along Montreal streets. “I’m trying to turn something ugly into something beautiful. I prefer beauty to ugliness. My question is how can I make it beautiful?”

In addition to the music, demonstrations and art shows, the festival will screen films created by Indigenous directors. These films touch on a wide range of subjects, from how Indigenous people are represented in mainstream media to the challenges of getting over a broken heart.

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