In a year that didn’t offer many reasons to celebrate, rather than try and put on a festival anyway, Ron Walker decided to hit pause instead. As the founder and executive producer of Edmonton’s Indigenous Peoples Festival, that meant forgoing the 2020 edition of the festival and focusing efforts towards meeting the needs of the community.
“Last year was a doozy,” Walker tells me, recounting the decision to cancel what would have been the fifth instalment of the festival. “Nobody did [any festivals] and we didn’t either. We were too busy just trying to keep the organization going, feeding families and doing some other programs that [were] more virtual in nature.”
After a year of acclimating to online events — including the success of the Machi Sekwan Festival this past May — Edmonton’s annual celebration of First Nation, Métis and Inuit cultures is back with a virtual festival on June 19 at 6 p.m., which will be available for livestream on YouTube.
In keeping with previous iterations of the festival, Edmonton’s Indigenous Peoples Festival is scheduled to happen within a few days of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which falls every June 21. This date was chosen due to its proximity to the longest day of the year (this year’s summer solstice is on June 20), which has traditionally been a time for Indigenous communities to celebrate their culture, language, history and heritage.
Although those celebrations have moved online this year, Edmonton’s Indigenous Peoples Festival will still feature a full slate of musical acts and cultural performances. Names on the billing include singer-songwriter Kaeley Jade, local Cree artist Tammy Lamouche and rapper and activist Shawn Bernard (also known as Feenix), who is making a long-awaited return to the stage following a 2014 attack that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Attendees can also look forward to a performance from award-winning powwow group Blackstone, as well as an appearance from Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear.
In addition to highlighting Indigenous culture here in Canada, the festival will feature performances from Maori singers and dancers in what is set to be a celebration of Indigenous cultures worldwide.
“The Indigenous struggle across the globe is not just here in Canada,” says Walker, who also serves as the executive director for the Canadian Native Friendship Centre. “It’s in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands — I could just keep going on and on and on.
“When [we] promote another Indigenous group from a different part of the globe, we’re coming together and sharing not just our pain, but we’re sharing our victories, we’re sharing our songs, we’re sharing our culture. Because of the residential schools and the colonial process that occurred, a lot of our cultural teachings have been lost. So when we talk with other Indigenous people, sometimes that can trigger a cultural memory for a lot of people.”
The enduring legacy of residential schools is a topic that has dominated the national consciousness following the discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried on the grounds of a Kamloops residential school, as well as another 104 potential graves at a residential school just outside Brandon, Manitoba. The death toll of the residential school system has long been an open secret in Indigenous communities, and the discoveries of the last few weeks are just the latest reopening of a centuries-old wound.
Walker shares his own connections to the residential school system, specifically through the traumas suffered by his late grandmother, as well as her brothers and sisters. He also expresses his desire for Edmonton’s Indigenous Peoples Festival to be a place of healing, in addition to a day of celebration.
“A lot of our singers and performers… actually said some words about the 215 beautiful little souls that they found at the residential school and how it has affected them,” Walker says. “People have to look at music and festivals as a way of healing in a community, so adopt that spirit when you look at this and watch it and enjoy.
“[The festival] doesn’t happen every year, as we see [with] the pandemic. You know what they say, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. So for us last year was very hard because usually we do three or four events a year, and we couldn’t do any last year. We’re trying to make up for it this year.”