STORIES OF NOW: Labrador Creative Arts Festival

VignetteLabrador Creative Arts Festival (LCAF) labradorcreativeartsfestival.ca

“STORIES OF NOW” is part of a project ArtBridges is working on with Judith Marcuse Projects’ ASCN (Arts for Social Change Network) and ICASC. It is about gathering and sharing stories emanating from the field now and about what issues and areas of focus matter. 

In conversation with: Tim Borlase Co-Chairperson: Retired; Theatre Director and Indigenous Education Consultant; Federal applications and programming, on February 17th, 2022.

If you could tell a story about your community-engaged arts initiative now, this year, what would the story be about? What are the main themes?

TB: The plot would be that the LCAF didn’t recognize fully, until COVID happened, how much art activities were present in the local small isolated communities that make up Labrador. With 47 years of running the festival – that local community of artists could contribute far more as artists to help keep traditions and cultural activities alive in their own communities by sharing their passion and skills with the students of their own community. A lot of these people would not have considered themselves as artists before, however, art comes in many forms. A lot of their work is culturally based art; a lot is practical, like making a komatik (a sled), attached to a skidoo. The design of it is artistic. To use this analogy further, the komatik is the artistic work and the skidoo became the motivator that allowed this to happen.

Related to that – there are 26 schools in Labrador, but the territory of Labrador is huge, and not all schools throughout Labrador were previously involved in the festival. We always have about 14-16 schools involved. However, because we were able to offer a virtual festival in 2020- early 2021, all schools took part, there was more participation – about 4500 – 5000 people were involved! Many of these several times over. Virtual presentations are certainly better than nothing, but they have serious limitations in terms of interaction. The presentations are with school-aged people primarily, but we do offer workshop opportunities for seniors, some for people in prisons, and some for day care centres.

What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)

TB: The element that is missing from the festival since the first year of the pandemic and maybe this year again as well, is the stories and social justice issues that are written about by young people. Students normally write and perform their plays in the evenings during the festival. The LCAF is not a competitive festival at all. However, students did not get the opportunity to perform and lots of workshops with artists didn’t happen for the last two years. So I’m not too sure what each community’s issues or stories under the theme of respect in 2020 and resurgence in 2021 would have been. So this is a gap in the festival’s mandate, a big thing to lose- hearing and seeing what students feel are the issues in their community.  Visiting artists travelling to the festival in Goose Bay was also a missing piece because the artists couldn’t get together and young people were not allowed to meet to share information, skills, passions- all round chats! This year we thought about the filming idea, the idea of creating a film about their own production that could be shared virtually with other schools would be a good one. Unfortunately this, too, has been a process to get schools interested and share some filming equipment and support to do this. We have 6 schools on board right now preparing to film their play – let’s hope they all make it and we can show off their work in late May – early June.

A lot of our communities in Labrador are remote – isolated. There are only small twin otter planes to travel on, so people can’t fly to the festival. They can’t sit together on the planes – who could go on the planes was restricted to people travelling to their own community, because of fears around COVID- there were only nursing stations in communities, no doctors, which put our communities on high alert during the pandemic.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

TB: One of the themes for this year was putting an emphasis on filming – with people using their own phones. Maybe in June we’ll be able to do something with this. There’ve been a lot of artists this year, more than we normally have because they are living in the communities already and the LCAF could utilize them to visit their local schools to put on workshops in their skill/passion/knowledge/tradition.  We have had about 30 local artists visiting their community schools, and about 10 artists that visited virtually. This is a much bigger number than about the 16 artists we would have had in the past. Usually, we’ve flown in artists to Goose Bay from around Canada. As a result of the emphasis on local community artists, the LCAF are hoping that these artists understand the festival better and they will continue to support the festival in the future, as they are more familiar with it. The organization is 47 years old – some families have been participating for three generations.

How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?

TB: Communities have really missed the visiting artists that used to fly in, but local people are now employed as artists, and are pleased to be working as artists. It’s not a win-win, but there’s more winning than not, more positive than negative – it’s had a silver lining. What I think will happen from here is we’ll always employ community-based people as well as professional/full-time working artists.

How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)

TB: We’re still very much limited in the size of the audience or groups that get together for a workshop. That’s both because of the government health mandates as well as the school system. The Indigenous governments also have their restrictions mainly because of additional services required in dealing with COVID. That’s a major loss. Take the CBC, for example, the CBC across Labrador is very much listened to. It takes its responsibility seriously. Their coverage would cover a lot of the festival. This year, there is very little media coverage. We’re still hanging in there, the board, staff, and one paid employee – Sandra Broomfield – who runs everything.  Luckily, she’s here for the long haul. We thought it would be daunting for her, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?

TB: The film project is new, we had 4 schools who were not involved previously that were going to develop a play script, rehearse and then record on camera, then present it in the festival. But the 4 changed to 3 because one didn’t have reliable Internet. We don’t know when this festival will be on, or if it will finish, but they’re happy working on it. A professional filmmaker is teaching film online, he lives in St. Johns, quite a distance away. He knows what he’s up against – when the students are back in school they’ll be able to do a scene and virtually work with him to work on their films.

We have another project with an East Indian Bollywood dancer from Montreal who also teaches cooking and drumming.  Through a Canada Council grant, his plan was to go do workshops last summer in 3 communities, spend time there, build East Indian dancing and combine the Inuit communities with drum dancing and form a parade through town. However, during the first year, the Bollywood dancing and cooking was online. He and his drumming partner couldn’t travel. In this year we took 3 more communities and did the same thing. Online, the drummers and dancers perform together though they are physically apart.  

What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?

TB: All the virtual sessions and performances we never had before. One of the challenges is – if you’re watching a show and you’re a member of the audience and you ask a question, we need permission from the school (because participants are minors). In the Q & A after the show, we could not film the audience, or we had to edit the questions out, we never thought of that before, such a restriction. We ended up with the sound of the voice, not the pictures.

Offering workshops virtually was very challenging – in how and who?  The internet in Labrador is very unstable – so this did pose some issues, however, on a whole – virtual sessions worked out very well and we were able to offer them to all students in Labrador!

photos by LCAF

Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact? 

TB: We got through it – I was surprised. It would have been so easy to cancel the whole festival because of COVID and people not being able to fly. We had a number of people on the committees, who thought we could not go ahead, but we did, and the festival is richer now. Really – Covid has opened new doors for the LCAF – we can now reach more students and offer them wonderful opportunities to grow and explore artistically with virtual artists workshops in many mediums. They can also renew their traditional cultural crafts/skills/knowledge through workshops from local artists – what an opportunity to keep things alive!

The festival began because young people didn’t know anything about the artistic practice in the next community over and they wanted to share their own community perspective through the arts. There was no opportunity – no TV, radio and telephone  – driving between communities was impossible. The fact that it’s 47 years old and now we’ve had to reinvent our communication, and the way we operate virtually and on-line is a great move forward into the new opportunities that await the LCAF. And yet the simple mandate of sharing community issues and information for young people is important to them. Internet is still not always reliable in all these communities. Luckily it’s much better than it used to be and will continue to improve so some communities don’t lose out.

…We’re learning from this ASCN organization – new things and new ways of doing old things, it’s amazing how with COVID restrictions, there are now lots of hubs all over Canada that we would not have met otherwise; it’s amazing how people have been brought together and have a chance to meet and exchange ideas to think outside of the box to make things happen!

Tim – the Founder, is based in Moncton NB, and goes to Labrador usually twice a year, for 3-4 weeks a time. He hopes to stay until the org is 50 years old! he’s also with the Canadian Network for Arts and Learning. 

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges  sconnell[at]artbridges.ca

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