Arboretum Festival Ming Wu ARB2015: IF YOU BUILD IT: Cultural, Social and Environmental Responsibility in Modern Development

The impact of indigenous voices on Arboretum Festival offers teachable moments for Canadian music

The programmers of the Ottawa-area festival learn that offering people a platform for expression and a willingness to listen goes a long way.

- Aug 31, 2015
Photo: an Arboretum Festival panel discussion at the Albert Island warehouse titled "IF YOU BUILD IT: Cultural, Social and Environmental Responsibility in Modern Development." Photo by: Ming Wu.

Ottawa’s Arboretum Festival returned for its fourth year in mid-August with resounding success, but the celebration of local and Canadian artists including Braids, Austra, Julianna Barwick, Melody McKiver, Phèdre, Shalabi Effect, New Fries and many more almost didn’t take place at all.

When Arboretum announced the 2015 festival was set to relocate to Ottawa’s Albert Island, a quiet strip near Chaudière Falls, questions quickly arose from Ottawa’s First Nations communities: Albert Island is unceded Algonquin land.

Time was short (the festival’s new location was announced in late April, with only a few short months before its August kickoff), but as the Canadian music scene watched and waited, programmers listened, and decided that rather than cancel the festival or ignore opposition, the festival would adjust programming dramatically. A detailed statement about Arboretum's plans emerged on their site, which read in part:

One thing we did see was a common need amongst all parties for awareness and harmony for all people, not only here in the Outaouais, but globally. Instead of cancelling the festival, we decided to move forward and facilitate public discussions, offering people a chance to come to the land, ask their own questions, and learn from those willing to share. The chance to connect is what made all the difference for us, and we hope it will for you as well.

Arboretum 2015 will be not only a spectacular music festival, but an opportunity for us to share history, ask questions, engage with one another, and ideally, change the way we relate to our region.

The statement, which also included some brief history on the Albert Island site, detailed plans for free public talks, panels, and conversations during the festival like “UNCEDED: The Algonquin and the Outaouais,” an exploration of both Algonquin history in the region and “how we can move society as a whole towards greater compassion and equality,” which included Chief Kirby Whiteduck of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation; Verna McGregor from Minwaashin Lodge; Kitigan Zibi Anishinabe poet, writer, and speaker Albert Dumont; Pikwàkanagàn powwow dancer and Memengweshii Council member Josée Bourgeois; and Shady Hafez, a Law and Canadian studies student of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and Syrian descent.

Another critical panel discussion, entitled “IF YOU BUILD IT: Cultural, Social and Environmental Responsibility in Modern Development,” featured Victoria Tenasco (Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg/ Wabano Center for Aboriginal Health), Guy Freedman (President, First Peoples Group), Dr. Rodney Nelson (Carleton Aboriginal Education Council, Carleton University), Greg Searle (One Planet Communities Program/Bioregional North America), Wanda Thusky (Memengweshii Council), and Rodney Wilts (Windmill Development, the group currently planning to redevelop the island and surrounding land).

While I wasn’t able to make it to Ottawa for Arboretum, watching from Toronto I was impressed by the efforts the festival’s team made. Post-fest, I spoke with Rolf Klausener, Arboretum’s Creative Director (and The Acorn's vocalist and guitarist), over email about the festival’s transitions and what other Canadian festivals and events can learn from Arboretum 2015.

Chart Attack: Can you give us a run through of the timeline of events that almost led to Arboretum being cancelled?

Rolf Klausener: We were already way behind schedule when we announced our new site on April 25th; our site's host was dealing with a mountain of red tape getting all the necessary permits to host public events. A few days later, we received some concerned emails about our site choice. Albert Island is part of a desecrated industrial site that is slated for remediation and redevelopment. There's been some public opposition to it due to its significance to the Algonquin community and other First Nations.

That led to about 8 weeks of talks with concerned artists, consultants, First Nations artists/festival partners, the developer, municipal experts, and anyone who could offer any insight. We were eventually connected to council members within the Algonquin community, who offered us a broader perspective. That led to talks with the non-FN activist community, university professors, and other thought leaders within the region's First Nations.

We loosely confirmed our panel discussions, and re-announced the adjusted festival line-up 4 weeks before our start date of August 19th.

Somewhere in there, one of our key venues, Mugshots, also closed, so we had to completely re-shuffle our entire festival line up.

Why and how did you eventually decide to move forward with Arboretum?

There was no single mitigating factor. I think there was simply a shift when we finally started connecting with the Algonquin community. We felt totally overwhelmed, and felt way out of our league. We literally knew nothing about Algonquin history and the unceded status of the Ottawa region when we announced the site. Connecting with them made us realize there was a tremendous opportunity to educate and enlighten our audience.

I think part of me was terrified that even reaching out might seem offensive. I didn't know the protocols, and didn't have much guidance in the matter. What I found was that whether I was speaking to members of the Algonquin community, other First Nations, or whomever, the general sentiment was gratitude.

Rolf Klausener

What changes did you make to the festival, and what steps did you take to address the Algonquin community’s concerns?

We decided to organize free panel discussions with members of the Algonquin community to help demystify their relationship to our region, offer a spectrum of thought on the impending development, and provide a platform for respectful discussion. To clarify, there isn't a single Algonquin voice. Communicating this was a major motivating factor in moving forward. This is a problematic cultural misconception many have. It's akin to saying something like all Conservative voters are pro-life, or everyone who reads Chart Attack likes Metric.

What has the community reaction (both from Aboriginal and Algonquin communities and otherwise) been like during and post-festival?

With those that we managed to speak with, and who offered feedback, the reaction to our engagement process was extremely well received. I think the biggest revelations happened leading up to the festival. We had to make a lot of cold calls. It was a constant exercise in communications and diplomacy.

I think part of me was terrified that even reaching out might seem offensive. I didn't know the protocols, and didn't have much guidance in the matter. What I found was that whether I was speaking to members of the Algonquin community, other First Nations, or whomever, the general sentiment was gratitude. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding and fear at heart of anything this complex. Offering people a platform to express themselves, and a willingness to listen goes a long way.

What did you learn from the experience that could be teachable for other event programmers?

A lot. Most importantly that it's the kind of legwork that one should undertake themselves from the ground up. There's no better way to learn, and no short cuts. And if Arboretum can do it – we have no corporate sponsorship, and work on a volunteer basis – then anyone can.

What it may have proven is that any event, regardless of access to resources or familiarity with complex issues, can create something meaningful and beneficial.

Rolf Klausener

Did you observe or hear about any important moments or experiences that were able to take place because of the way Arboretum proceeded? What might some examples be?

There were many. In addition to our honouring the Algonquin and First Nations significance of our site and region, we also shifted our programming to incorporate more non-Western popular music.

Some of our favourite moments were when Katie Stelmanis of Austra exclaimed on stage that she was overjoyed to see so many women in headlining slots, a huge audience showing up to the festival Saturday morning to take part in an Algonquin welcoming ceremony and stirring healing dance by Pikwàkanagàn's Josée Bourgeois and the Storm Cloud drum group of the Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, and Ottawa's Gamelan Semara Winangun (a collective that perform traditional Indonesian gamelan music) absolutely mystifying the audience as they performed off-stage, in the festival's main courtyard Saturday afternoon.

Do you think the tide of events was a positive experience for Ottawa's music scene in the end?

Gamelan Semara Winangun at Carleton Alumni Theatre

Absolutely. Many friends and community members told us they were in awe of what we managed to pull off. They expressed a lot of gratitude for bringing to light issues they felt were too complex to engage in; I think that meant the most to us.

That said, many of us in the independent Ottawa scene have kept issues of land claim, race, and general equality front of mind for a while. There are a lot of people doing extremely groundbreaking work in the city, in that respect. But I think what it may have proven is that any event, regardless of access to resources or familiarity with complex issues, can create something meaningful and beneficial.

Do you have any regrets, or things you wish you’d be able to do differently or address?

In terms of how we handled the situation, the number and breadth of voices we managed to engage, and the overall balance of celebration, art, and enlightenment that we were able to offer our festival audience, we have zero regrets. I don't know that we could have done much more without sacrificing more than we did – we risked the festival's survival by diving into the engagement process, and left ourselves only 4 weeks to promote the festival. That having been said, we could have always engaged more people, and more voices, and I definitely wish we would have had more time to do so.

What does the future of Arboretum look like? Will this year's events shape future festivals?

For now, we're wrapping things up, sorting the books, and reflecting with our board and friends. We hold Arboretum for no other purpose but to bring people together; it's too early for us to know the shape of next year's festival, if we decide to hold one. But regardless, the communions we had and work we accomplished will reflect in everything we do as an organization going forward.

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