By Chris Creighton-Kelly, July/August 2013

Artful ways to build community.

Imagine. There is no Empress Hotel. No Chinatown. No Crystal Gardens. Before James and Amelia Douglas. Or Emily Carr. Or Francis Rattenbury. 

Imagine this place before any Europeans arrived here. For thousands of years, Coast Salish people from around our region came together to share food, honour their elders in celebration and give thanks to the bounty of the land. They danced, sang traditional songs and told theatrical stories. Often these gatherings had a spiritual component. 

Fires burned, people joked and laughed, children stayed up late. 

Were these coming-togethers called festivals? No, not really, not as we think of a festival in today’s world. But they involved a “feast” and were, no doubt, “festive”—words that are etymological cousins to the concept of festival.

For millennia, folks all over our planet have created “festivals” for profound cultural reasons. Ritualistic, social, sometimes with religious roots, they usually involve fun, food, wonder, singing and dancing, travelling to a special place and a strong sense of community.

And we are still doing it. In Sooke, Langford, James Bay, Fernwood, Saltspring and all over the CRD. From small, local events—like FernFest or the Phoenix Walking Festival to the specific themed—like the Pride Parade or the Ska Festival—to more open ended gatherings like Luminara or the One Wave Festival, we love to gather, nosh, laugh and hang out.

Especially in warmer weather. Yes, we do have a few winter festivals. But being Canadians—with our short, seasonal bursts of heat—we rush to pile up outdoors, warm up our flesh and revel in those long, languid, liquid days of summer.

Why? Sure, the arts bureaucrats will recount how the Canadian government started funding festivals in the ’80s and that is what created the festive boom. Sure, the cultural tourism boosters will tell you all about the 15 million Canadians who attend festivals annually and the millions of dollars that they contribute to the GDP.

All true. But there is something deeper, something in our DNA. 

These thoughts were running through my head after a “what-started-as-an-innocent-chit-chat” with a person on the phone. I was buying tickets to the Victoria JazzFest with a helpful and patient staff person on the line. At one point, I mentioned that I was thinking of writing about festivals. I struck a gold mine; she had lots to say. Astutely, thoughtfully, she opined. 

Our conversation went something like this. 

Me: “So how do you feel about festivals in Victoria?”

She: “I think they are great. I am a student, with not a lot of money and I really like the fact that there are free events at most festivals. The venues are a problem though. We have great spaces up to around 800 seats. Then there is the Royal Theatre with 1400 seats, then nothing until Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena with 7000 seats. So if you want to do a mid-size concert, say around 3000 to 5000, there is no suitable venue”.

This sounds a little too inside arts production to me. 

Me: “So, what about using an outdoor venue?”

She: “Well, that does not work year round and anyway, these spaces are limited. Beacon Hill Park is not bad, but there are huge access issues. I understand why people do not want the flowers to be crushed, but still, there has to be some compromises possible. We have to get creative with our outdoor spaces.”

Oh, the endless conversation about cultural venues in Victoria. Cannot do festivals right. Need more all-ages venues, with cheaper rental rates. Less concrete, more grass. More family-style events. Better attention to Aboriginal arts. 

Me: “And artistically?”

She: “The content gets better every year. Victoria is growing up in its artistic choices. I have heard music, seen films, attended theatre and dance that is innovative, wonderful and with lots of talent. I totally enjoy the feeling of being part of a community, of going to festivals and showing ourselves to ourselves.”

Showing ourselves to ourselves. That’s it in a concise, crisp phrase. It seems that we humans need to congregate, to converse, to construct new rituals in a social space. Some studies show that festivals are still growing in Canada. Anecdotal evidence suggests that maybe we have peaked—there are only so many weekends in the year—that our society is now saturated with festivals.

For over a decade the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) produced a highly successful lantern festival, Luminara, in Beacon Hill Park. It has not been held since 2009. I asked Karin Scarth, ICA arts manager, what happened. 

“Yes, it had to do with losing our funding. But also, in some ways we were too successful. Luminara was growing every year and the park was becoming ‘too full.’ Sometimes young kids felt overwhelmed by so many people. Plus, we wanted to try new things, not just repeat the same formula year after year.”

Karin continued: “The spirit of Luminara lives on in our Moon Festival in Gordon Head, coming again this September. We always want our art projects to reflect the ICA mandate of welcoming and empowering new immigrants to Victoria. Big festivals can do that but perhaps there are other, more effective ways of doing that.”

One of the knocks from the arts establishment towards festivals has been that they are too popular, not artistic enough, too “beer-gardeny.” I have never felt this way myself. To me, festivals occupy a critical position in the arts ecology—they attract citizens to a popular, fun event where they are exposed to artists and art forms. To me, this is a good thing. The first time should always be free! 

And in sync with Ms Scarth’s observation, more and more festivals are producing one-offs in the off-season. Concerts, workshops, community consultations, all with the purpose of being more engaged in the local; more effective; more open to fresh ways of elaborating cultural forms in public spaces.

While doing research for this column I came across an impact study on festivals in Edinburgh, Scotland. Of course, it contained all those magic, economic spin-off numbers beloved by those who make the arts-are-good-for-business arguments.

But the study thoughtfully included a bunch of other outcomes—providing enriched, unique cultural experiences; developing creative industries; presenting learning benefits for citizens; enhancing local identity; supporting cultural diversity; generating social networks and encouraging community cohesion.

Kath Mainland, chief executive of the largest festival in the world—the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—responded to the study in this way: “If you don’t value the quality of the experience,” she said, “then the economic benefits simply don’t flow.”

Exactly! So go out and have some festival fun. Spend as much money—or not—as you like. Do not worry about the GDP.

But, oh yeah, do remember to give thanks to the bounty of this land. You will be carrying on a critically important tradition which honours where we live. On this territory, we are guests of the Coast Salish peoples. The ones who kept those fires burning long before any non-Aboriginals ever came to this land.

We are lucky to live here. 

I wish you a delectable, festive summer.

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.