Probing the grey areas of Canadian identity in rural Quebec

At Festival De Musique Émergente in the remote mining town of Rouyn-Noranda, we ponder what makes a strong festival.

- Sep 9, 2015
All photos by the author.

Rouyn-Noranda, a town in northern Quebec with the approx population of the fictional community of Twin Peaks, sees a few thousand additional travelling artists, fans, and journalists every the Labour Day weekend for FME, Festival De Musique Émergente or Festival of Emerging Music.

We were invited to ride a charter plane 600 km north from Toronto to see a lineup where black metal, indie pop, folk, garage rock, hip hop, performance art, and Francophone dance pop were united in a town almost no one outside of Quebec who isn’t a junior hockey fan has ever heard of for four days and nights at over a dozen venues. It sounds like a good, if strange, opportunity to get out of Toronto.

I’ve scoured the schedule for the weirdest act I can find by takeoff, so I plan FME’s second day around the performance of, of all things, a duo local to Rouyn-Noranda: longtime art collaborators and gallery co-curators, Geneviève et Matthieu.


Geneviève et Matthieu

Here in mining country, just about no one has heard of vapour wave, OVO or health goth, and the trend cycles that drive fast-paced internet-propped music scenes would be difficult to explain even without the language barrier.

Artists Geneviève & Matthieu have taken over a small-ish room with strange installations: delicate looking sculptural objects, huge acrylic paintings, wooden structures and projections. What follows in this enclosed space is nearly an hour of what I am thrilled to describe as the most Canadian performance art I have ever seen.

At her most accessible, Geneviève sings sweet pop melodies in French at her keyboards, aided by guitarist and singer Matthieu (their interplay has been likened to Serge Gainsbourg and his Brigitte Bardot). While this lifeline of musicality holds the audience rapt for the duration of the show, the rest is chaos, and it’s in structured chaos that Geneviève & Matthieu specialize.

Geneviève & Matthieu @ Centre d’exposition de Rouyn-Noranda | FME 2015

Early into the set Geneviève takes the lead in attacking and dismantling the artwork that has been so thoughtfully arranged inside the gallery. She and Matthieu throw paint on, lunge into, roll, and deflate a massive circular air mattress canvas they’ve painted in Roman and Group of Seven motifs. Painted tablets are broken over Geneviève’s forehead. Statues are shattered, and there’s an increasing amount of wet paint on the floor as the audience shifts to make room for the performers and their musical path of destruction. Geneviève is soon covered in black and blue paint. A third singer with a streaked face and studded leather jacket sings operatic accompaniment or gazes at the duo while eating chips.



The avant explosion in the tiny space is a far cry from last night’s headlining Deerhoof performance where the line of indie pop was towed with energetic precision, or Ariane Moffatt’s smooth show on the outdoor mainstage, where instead of mild terror, a packed audience of nearly a thousand had moved in Thursday night rapture.

Yet there are similar threads binding nearly every performance I see over the weekend at FME: at shows, all ages from tiny kids to elderly townspeople are present and responsive, and it often seems the whole town has come out to take part. Little thought has been given to hipster appeal or Pitchfork buzz: here in mining country, just about no one has heard of vapour wave, OVO or health goth, and the trend cycles that drive fast-paced internet-propped music scenes would be difficult to explain even without the language barrier.

Instead, each curated act (FME does not officially take band submissions — I’m happy to report no Sonicbids vampires here) is given the festival’s often generous amount of stage time on its own merit, and while there are still the PR engine’s lifeblood of “must-sees” and hype names floating around, the remote location manages to at least tilt the lens through which jaded urban festival-goers consume music each summer as if with a bingo card.


The crowd on 7th Street

Here on the shores of a calm, sparkling blue lake or in the midst of Rouyn’s beautiful botanical garden / swampland, there’s not much for me to do but appreciate the indie folk-pop of Julie Blanche or Safia Nolan, outside of my usual scope of preference, for their craft, rather than through the distortion and degradation of genre-pinning. Uniqueness is more of a mandate than capturing breaking bands for FME; placing Montreal’s Duchess Says in Rouyn drives home the heart of their act: in an easily converted hall thirsty to be overwhelmed by sound and energy, the noise-influenced dance-punk band shine as seasoned entertainers.


Duchess Says

Francophone artists are booked on the same bills as Anglo acts, bridging the language gap as dancers smoothly transition from Toronto’s Doldrums to Saint-Romuald-born Moffatt. Italy’s suit-wearing death metal band and possible aspiring cult leaders Fleshgod Apocalypse are a ridiculous spectacle, as is a small reporter giggling in the back while an entire county’s community of guys and girls who care more about snowmobiles and hunting than music trends headbang at what is arguably the festival’s most popular event, its metal night.

FME has taken over the town SXSW-style — it’s clear everyone knows the festival is happening, and most businesses, even the tiny, unremarkable Dollar Fantasies dollar store, have FME posters in their windows. Yet rather than madness, from performances in hotel rooms and at pool parties to the massive mainstage on 7th, and at every club show in between, FME’s miniature stature requires no horrible lineups, mandatory brand worship, or confusing pass systems.


Dollar Fantasie

And none of us on the tour feel unbearable FOMO at taking an afternoon off to visit the Refuge Pageau an hour away, where one journo, enamoured with a friendly porcupine, adorably named Chewbacca, echoes a sentiment I feel every at Woofstock back home in Toronto: animals are better than music festivals.

Why, even at a chill and reverent fest such as FME, does nature inspire such a simultaneously earnest and jaded response? Through FME I meandered back to this question, and its more or less obvious answer: human beings seek connection, and music festivals offer little — a hedonist outlet here, a casual hook-up there, and maybe, if you’re lucky, one memorable moment at a show, meaningful even in the next day’s morning light, that might compare with an experience as rare as watching a refuge staff member pet a coyote, or rubbing a tamed porcupine’s belly.


Chewbacca the Porcupine!

When Geneviève & Matthieu perform, I’ve already sat through a day and a half of peppy indie pop, post rock, and folk performances with placid appreciation, so it’s no wonder I can’t stop grinning as the duo destroy everything in the room and a small child starts to cry. The duo’s absurdist, yet undeniably sincere-ist, expedition into destruction has the audience laughing (when they’re not crying for their mothers) even as it echoes abstracted internal and outer struggles and a wholehearted yearning for something other.

At the performance’s end, a burly, middle aged poet in plaid flannel reads a tribute to Canadian Aboriginal peoples, or as he explains to me in broken English afterward, “the Native Indians.” Aggression and humour, serious themes and playfulness, play off an aesthetic that weaves together so many mediums and aesthetics it should have been a disaster. I taste the strain of ecstasy my refined palate usually finds at pug races or deer petting opps.


When I speak with Matthieu after the performance, in part to ask what the hell they were saying (I speak about as much French as my dog understands English), what I get is not artspeak, but fantasy: G&M’s current obsession is La Jamésie, a dream destination based on a remote territory in northern Quebec. “It’s a strange place — not many people have been there,” Matthieu waxes. He and Geneviève have created a “poetry vision” of Jamésie, turning it into a fictive new world for “people who have been rejected.”

Matthieu says it’s difficult to translate poetry, but one phrase which gets the audience giggling is “art is easy” (l'art est facile). “It’s a way to live. We will do art if we have a grant or not. Art is easy; let’s do it.” Together, the Rouyn artists have been committed to DIY for about fifteen years, and Matthieu tells me they played FME’s inaugural year back in 2002. (Festival founder Jenny Thibault later tells me she dated Matthieu in grade school — “about grade six” — back in the days he was more interested than playing hockey than art.)


While Matthieu claims that G&M are not purposefully making work about Canada, their performance is inherently and vitally tied to national identity, in their blend of western art, post-modernism, and the same abstracted Indigenous motifs that find their way into so many non-Native Canadian homes via art prints, beaded slippers, or knick-knacks. The slippery slope to appropriation plateaus to rural Canada, where vast unobstructed stretches of nature and sky seem to allow space for the complicated relationship between Native Canadian art and white Canadian lifestyles to manifest. For some, assimilation has not only moved in one direction, which only further muddies the waters in the relationship between settlers and Natives.

On G&M’s own Aboriginal motifs, Matthieu explains, “in the north there’s a lot of communities fighting for rights — to stop mining, etc — and it’s a point we borrow: we’re with them. We’re not [Native ourselves] but the artwork is beautiful, and it’s an influence for us.” In Winnipeg, my mother keeps a ring of sage over the rearview mirror in her SUV. I understand, and yet I don’t even begin to — and it’s in these grey areas that I always feel the most Canadian.


Two smokestacks tower over the town of Rouyn, a constant reminder of its history as a mining community, as its individual hardy residential fortresses against winter hug the small Osisko Lake. Depanneurs sell cheap wine and beer, restaurants serve two types of mayonnaise, and the parking lot of a 24 hour poutine restaurant provides a teenage hangout at the heart of the town. In winter, almost everyone has a snowmobile. Dog sleds can be rented by the day for long camping trips over frozen rivers. In summer, Rouyn rises as the north’s cultural outpost, hosting multiple festivals including a film festival devoted to mockumentaries and the thirteen-year-old genre-hopping music fest FME.


Oh the choices.

Our divided, baby country, fragmented by region, geography, ethnicity and language, is best captured in a complicated, nearly impossible to synthesize mixture of the chill and the weird, the rural and the sacred, the scenic and the backwater.

It’s by embracing the town of Rouyn that FME has managed to succeed and grow for so long, and it seems Quebec festivals like FME, and Montreal's frozen, winter-themed electronic series Igloofest have, intentionally or not, figured out how to leave strong impressions on tourists and locals by packaging and celebrating Canadian-ness, though Rouyn’s isolation gives FME’s programming the space it needs to go one step further with that pursuit.

Our divided, baby country, fragmented by region, geography, ethnicity and language, is best captured in a complicated, nearly impossible to synthesize mixture of the chill and the weird, the rural and the sacred, the scenic and the backwater. It's captured in our battles to survive between modern technology and a myriad of clashing traditions while wondering if we should splinter into a French country and and English one, or join the loud, aggressive force beneath us for whom we are jokingly referred to as a hat. Every cultural gathering raises as many questions as it answers, which does seem to launch positive forward motion, even with various backpedals.

At its best, FME exposes our geographical and cultural limitations, driving home the vast spaces Canadians need to conquer just to communicate and share with one another. We are struggling to figure out what is Francophone (do Francophone artists have to record in French to be legitimate?), how to best listen to Indigenous voices, how to find or preserve identity in a country as large as the US but with nearly 1/10th of its population.



A good festival both props up its environment and probes its identity, all while delivering Instagrammable moments or new bands to tell our friends to add to their Spotify dinner party playlists. And, through curation, location and luck, (not exclusively via free beer and cheap drink menus, as they might modestly claim) FME is a good festival.

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