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COLUMN: ‘Magical’ Gathering celebrates our Indigenous roots



‘The response … was absolute silence as the audience wept for this young girl and the sins of our country,’ says columnist after a performance at St. Paul’s

Gathering: A Festival of First Nations Stories made a triumphant return to the area this weekend.

This is the fifth iteration of the literary festival, a cornerstone event for the former Huronia Centre for the Arts, now Arts Orillia. Cancelled two years in a row thanks to the pandemic, this year the event came roaring back with partnerships with St. Paul’s Centre, Rama First Nation, and the Gjojijing Roundtable.

The four-day event started for the public on June 1 with opening ceremonies at Rama Community Hall and the John Snake Memorial Grounds.

All through the week, hundreds of students throughout the area benefited by educational, informative, and inspirational workshops with some of the key writers and storytellers attending.

JP Longboat, the founder and associate director of Circadia Indigena – Indigenous Arts Collective, led many students in a powerful day of learning at Couchiching Beach Park; and local author Sherry Lawson took S. P. Joseph Lyons, author of Little Bear in Foster Care, for an emotional and healing time appreciated by students at Mnjikaning Kendaaswin Elementary School in Rama.

Friday night, Hamilton Mohawk singer/songwriter Tom Wilson, accompanied by pianist Jesse O’Brien, and son, Thompson Wilson, on vocals, harmonica, and bass, rocked the house down at “the hottest venue in town” — the unairconditioned St. Paul’s Centre Great Hall. 

The temperature was a very warm 29 degrees Celsius in the hall, causing one elderly concert goer to faint and have to be tended to by paramedics, but neither the band nor audience threw in the very damp towel.

Wilson was mesmerizing, the gravelly voice bringing everyone in, as he wove stories out of song and spoken word to tell us his new truth: that he is not the son of blue-collar Hamilton, but instead a Mohawk man, a truth he only discovered less than 10 years ago.

“This is why we have children,” an emotional Wilson said, after his son joined him in a song, harmonizing with his dad in a way only family can do. The duo were incredible together, aided by the incomparable O’Brien on piano, giving the audience a magical show to kick off that part of the festival.

Saturday brought a full day of events at Rama Community Hall, starting with a sunrise ceremony at 5:20 a.m. at the John Snake Memorial Grounds, right behind the hall. A community breakfast followed, before attendees got into the day’s activities featuring top Canadian Indigenous writers of our times. 

The speakers were a veritable who’s who of Canadian Indigenous talent, including Michelle Good, winner of multiple awards including the Governor General’s Literary Awards, for her seminal book, Five Little Indians; Tom Wilson, author of the runway bestseller, Beautiful Scars, already made into a documentary and soon to be a musical; and Karen McBride, whose acclaimed debut novel, Crow Winter, was shortlisted for the 2020 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the PMG Indigenous Literature Award, and was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Awards.

Other authors included Brenda Wastasecoot, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Indigenous Studies, and author of Granny’s Giant Bannock; S.P. Joseph Lyons, a best-selling author through, and the 2022/2023 recipient of the First Nations Communities Read, PMC Indigenous Literature Award for Little Bear in Foster Care; and Armand Garnet Ruffo, who recently co-edited a new edition of The Oxford Anthology of Indigenous Literature, and published a wide-ranging book of observations called Treaty # which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 2019.

Of course, local Rama author and storyteller Sherry Lawson was there, reading excepts from her first book and her upcoming book; and local artist Chief LadyBird was ably represented by the beautiful Painted Canoe beside the podium.

The rapt audience of close to 100 people were attentive and spellbound by the stories, excerpts, and thoughtful answers to their questions. “Doing the work” and “telling the truth” were frequent themes, and the fact that the audience was there, according to Tom Wilson, was the right step to take towards acknowledging the past and taking steps towards a bright future, the good way, and the right path to journey on, for our children and grandchildren. 

The festival pinnacle was the concert by Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano, and Marcus Ali on Saturday night at St. Paul’s. The Great Hall had cooled down to a temperate 25 degrees by then, but the performers turned up the heat to Rio de Janeiro heights; if you were there, you will understand the reference.

You might know Highway as the author of The Res Sisters, Kiss of the Fur Queen, and his memoir, Permanent Astonishment, among many other works, and as an Officer of the Order of Canada. His other awards and honours include three Dora Mavor Moore Awards, two Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Awards, Toronto Arts Award, National Indigenous Achievement Award (now the Indspire Award), and honorary degrees from 11 Canadian universities.

But did you know he first studied to be a concert pianist? Have you heard of his musical performance, Songs in the Key of Cree? Or his album, Cree Country? Did you know he has written words and music to many cabaret-style songs, as well as musicals Rose and the one-woman show, The Postmistress

Highway was a force on St. Paul’s outstanding piano, settling down and playing with an assurance that belied his 71 years. Cano, a singer with an outstanding range, and incredible acting skills, stole the show. Or, as one audience member said, “Highway brought the goods and Cano delivered them.” Ably supported, uplifted, and amplified by Ali on saxophone.

The trio opened the audience’s hearts with songs written by Highway in Cree, and performed in Spanish, Cree, English, and French. Songs such as Rio showcased the improvisation, comedic, and acting skills of Cano as she recounted her wild, lustful, tango-filled trip to “Rio, the city of looooove”, and Highway and Ali never faltered through the 10 minutes of this passion-filled and laughter-inducing excerpt from The Postmistress.

Then, when the performers had everyone wide open, they completely undid the audience with a song about a 17-year old Indigenous girl, whom Highway had gone to school with in Manitoba, who was abducted, raped and murdered in the most brutal way by four young men. Cano was faultless in her singing and acting as she took on the voice of the girl, explaining why she wouldn’t be able to be at the luncheon the next day. 

The response to this song was absolute silence as the audience wept for this young girl and the sins of our country. 

The trio closed the show with the Thank You song, and held the audience in the palm of their hands as they thanked them for their attention. A rousing standing ovation finished the evening.

The festival wrapped up on Sunday with events at St. Paul’s Centre and Couchiching Beach Park, including a water ceremony and workshops and learning with local elders and knowledge keepers, courtesy of the Gjojijing Truth and Reconciliation Roundtable. 

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