Socio-political issues permeate fine arts festival

Matt
Matt Gardner
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Published on April 09, 2014

Student paintings hang on display at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Crafts made by students are displayed at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Grand Chief Ron Michel speaks on Wednesday at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Coun. Don Cody speaks on Wednesday at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Kim Jonathan speaks on Wednesday at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Elder A.J. Felix speaks on Wednesday at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival.

Published on April 09, 2014

Attendees at the Prince Albert Grand Council’s 23rd Annual Fine Arts Festival participate in a round dance on Wednesday at the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre.

Now in its 23rd year, the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) Fine Arts Festival has become renowned as an annual opportunity for First Nations youth to display their creative talents.

Yet even as the festival showcases work by young artists from across northern Saskatchewan, its strong cultural component has often encouraged discussion of related social and political issues.

“I think it always comes out, just because it’s so out there already that the kids are kept aware of what’s going on so that they know and they can start forming their own opinions … because it is their future that’s going to be affected, right?” festival co-ordinator Shona Stapleton said.

Such hot-button topics were a frequent focus of speakers during Wednesday’s grand entry ceremony, which brought together area dignitaries before hundreds of students representing 28 schools from 12 First Nations.

Drawing comparisons with the upcoming 2014 Saskatchewan First Nation Winter Games in Prince Albert, Grand Chief Ron Michel noted the positive impact of events such as the fine arts festival.

“It’s very sad sometimes when we hear about suicide and when we hear about alcohol and drugs … When we bring our kids together here to have a good time and to work the best they can in competition with their other partners -- I think we have to keep on doing this,” Michel said.

In addition to the visual artwork on display -- each drawn from mini-festivals where schools chose winning pieces -- the festival included a wide range of creative forms from music to dance to creative writing.

Represented schools span the PAGC district, with communities as close to Prince Albert as Wahpeton and as distant as Black Lake, Wollaston and Hatchet Lake.

“We bring students in from those schools and they display their artwork, their literature, all sorts of performing arts, so they have the chance to just work off some of their talents,” Stapleton said.

One of the speakers who encouraged students to hone those talents was Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Kim Jonathan.

In her remarks, Jonathan emphasized the virtues of forgiveness and resiliency.

“When you think that you’re alone, you’re not,” she said. “You need to reach in to whatever gifts the Creator, our God, has provided to you.

“Reach in -- maybe you’ll be artists, maybe you’ll be teachers, maybe you’ll be singers, maybe you’ll be RCMP or maybe you’ll be a good fiddle player … Reach in to what your strengths are, because God has provided you with that. Our Creator … hasn’t put you on this earth without any means to survive, without any strengths.”

Another speaker, Chief Justin Burns of James Smith Cree Nation, touched on the value of education, while Chief Leo Omani of Wahpeton Dakota Nation described perceived threats to First Nations control of education by external forces -- a point expanded upon by Elder A.J. Felix, whose remarks closed out the ceremony.

Felix began by describing the very first PAGC Fine Arts Festival as resulting from a desire by constituent First Nations to gather students from their schools -- regardless of the imposing cost -- and to compare notes on how each school chose to paint, dance and build things.

When we bring our kids together here to have a good time and to work the best they can in competition with their other partners -- I think we have to keep on doing this. Grand Chief Ron Michel

In 1968, Felix said, the federal government moved responsibility for First Nations health, education and social services to the provincial level.

“The province took over the paying of hospital bills, the certifying of social workers, the certifying of educators, deciding what the Indian school curriculum will be,” he said.

“That’s how much interference the province and the feds have had on our lives, and this year, they want to take over our education completely … and we’re not going to let them.”

That feared “takeover” of education is a reference to the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act, which the PAGC has rejected in favour of its own proposed education acts.

Putting the proposed education changes in the wider context of treaty rights, Felix argued to wild applause that “the teaching of our kids has always been an Indian responsibility, and it will always be an Indian responsibility.

“We do not need the federal government or the provincial government to come and teach our kids. We can do it ourselves.”

The federal government plans to table its First Nations education bill on Thursday ahead of a scheduled two-week recess.

Meanwhile, in remarks made on behalf of the city, Coun. Don Cody struck a conciliatory tone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, and particularly all of the students that are here who put this fine art together, let me say -- we really appreciate the fact that in the city of Prince Albert, we have the opportunity to come to your nation,” Cody said.

“We enjoy coming here because you’re part of us and we’re part of you. We would never want us to be separate. We want us to be together … I want to say, on behalf of my city, (Mayor) Greg Dionne and all my city councillors and all the citizens of Prince Albert, how welcome you are in our community.”

The arts festival itself began on Monday morning with pipe ceremonies following by the setup of art displays. Tuesday included drama/oratory, music and individual creative dance competitions.

On Wednesday, art displays from students in kindergarten to Grade 6 came down while art displays from middle and high school students went up. Aside from the grand entry ceremony, the day also saw further dance competitions.

Thursday will see remaining competitions for oratory, drama and music, followed by a teen dance in the evening. Friday serves as a travel day for the students to return to their respective communities.

All members of the public are invited to view the art displays and attend the festival throughout its duration. Admission is free of charge.

Organizations: First Nations, Prince Albert, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice RCMP

Geographic location: Northern Saskatchewan, Wahpeton, Black Lake Hatchet Lake

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