The First Peoples’ Performing Arts Festival of the Thousand Islands returns to Gananoque’s downtown this weekend for the fifth annual gathering.
The festival was founded by Kevin John Saylor after he purchased the Royal Theatre Thousand Islands and saw a real lack of Indigenous led content.
The festival is run by First Peoples’ Circle of the Thousand Islands and this year will welcome back vaccinated live audiences with all social distancing and masking policies being followed.
Last year the event was limited to a virtual capacity due to COVID-19.
Frayne McCarthy, artistic director of King Street Productions and a collaborator with the festival, says last year’s edition was almost cancelled outright, but organizers were eager to not stall the momentum the festival had gained in three years prior.
McCarthy says welcoming back audiences is exciting, but actually makes the festival a lot tougher to plan and run than the previous year.
“The challenges are maybe even greater because of the responsibility we have to everyone’s safety and checking everyone’s vaccination status,” McCarthy said.
“That’s a greater challenge than simply saying our doors are closed and everything’s going to be virtual.”
Elements of this year’s event will also be live-streamed using equipment that was able to be acquired last year thanks to grants.
This year’s festival has a theme of “First, Now, and Always”, a nod to the fact that the first people of Turtle Island were here first, are here now and will forever be the stewards of this unceded territory.
The three day festival will be kicked off on Friday with a screening of the movie “BEANS” by Mohawk director Tracey Deer, presented by one of the film’s stars.
Saturday will see an acting workshop, performances by Indigenous artists and the festival debut of the Indigenous Maker’s Market featuring creations by local Indigenous artisans.
Sunday will close off the festival with a traditional water walk, an open air concert and the dedication of First Peoples’ Park after having the land recognized municipally.
Performances and art displayed may range from very traditional Indigenous works and stories to more contemporary styles.
Co-Chair of the First People’s Circle of the Thousand Islands Kevin John Saylor, who both organized the event and helps lead Saturday’s acting workshop, says the performances this weekend showcases the range of interests and talents of Indigenous performers.
He says while there will be heartbreaking and dramatic stories told through performance, there is more to Indigenous art than just that.
“A lot of the contemporary native theatre can be very dramatic and a little bit down and focuses on colonialism and residential schools,” Saylor said.
“Honestly that’s just not my thing to focus on, my thing is to focus on the positive and we have lots of stories beyond that.”
The emphasis of this festival is on the Indigenous creators, not any kind of specific art or performance.
Frayne McCarthy says he feels Indigenous artists feel a weight of responsibility to tell these important stories, as for the first time it feels like people may be truly listening.
“There’s a lot of storytelling that needs to be told and we settlers of Turtle Island need to hear these stories,” McCarthy said.
“We need to be open to hearing the truth being told in these stories.”
There are no tickets to the festival, with organizers requesting donations that will go towards the upkeep of the Royal Theatre which has been closed but accruing overhead costs for the last 19 months.
All details can be found here.