From the Opening Night film screening to the Open Space concert at Place des Festival, the spirit of the North was front and centre at the 29th edition of Présence Autochtone, Montreal’s First Peoples Festival.

The opening film NIN E TEPUEIAN – MON CRI, presented at Montreal’s Grande bibliothèque, follows the Innu poet, artist and activist Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine in her quest to retrace her origins and assert her identity as a young native woman bearing the intergenerational wounds of Canada’s colonial heritage and striving for a genuine reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Quebec.

“We went North and South,” said director Santiago Bertolino in an interview minutes before the world premiere of the documentary on August 6, 2019. Indeed, the movie takes us through Haiti, Slovenia and North Dakota, and leads us all the way from Kanapé-Fontaine’s home base in Montreal to Kuujjuaq, where she meets Inuit children for a workshop at the Jaanimmarik school.

Presence Autochtone featured Inuit throat singing as part of the Kattajjaq and Khoomi Open Space concert. © Simon Van Vliet

One of the most contemplative scenes in the film shows Kanapé-Fontaine riding out on a snowmobile into the taiga outside Kuujjuaq and stopping to take in the view of the vast frozen wilderness. “It reminds me that I don’t come from nowhere,” the Innu artist said in a brief speech after the screening. Bertolino says the scene with Kuujjuaq school children came as a natural conclusion for the film where Kanapé-Fontaine “poses as a model for Inuit youth” inviting them, though poetry, to take back their language, revive their culture and reinvest their territory.

In the closing sequence of the movie, shot on a boat going though the melting sea-ice, a quote of Kanapé-Fontaine’s poetry floats superimposed over the image:

“Our sons and daughters will leave the reservations elders on their backs ancestors at their ears they will walk South to retrace the North.”

Many events and venues feature Canada’s northern peoples’ arts and culture, both during Présence Autochtone and on a year-long basis, Montreal’s First Peoples Festival founder and director André Dudemaine notes.

“We try to recreate a very ancient tradition,” he explains, standing between a stained-glass caribou and an installation representing migrating geese at the heart of the Place des festivals. Long before European settlers arrived in Canada, nations from the North and South would converge in Montreal over the summer to trade, he says. If contacts with the Inuit were scarce this far South back in pre-colonial days, Dudemaine points out that the ties are now more frequent.

The Open Space event featuring composer Katia Makdissi-Warren and the Inuit throat singers Lydia Etok and Nina Segalowitz was a striking example of these modern ties. “We’re very happy to share a part of our heritage,” Lydia Etok told a crowd made up mostly of Montrealers and tourists during the August 8, 2019 perfor­mance of Katajjaq and Khoomii, a chorus event mixing traditional songs from Nunavik and Mongolia.

“Inuit throat singing is a game,” Etok explains. It is traditionally played as a friendly competition between two women who respond to each other with sounds meant to represent the sounds of the surrounding nature and animals: the hurling winds rushing by, the crackling ice underfoot, the growling bear lurking about… and the buzzing mosquitos hovering all around! Makdissi-Warren said she even composed a song where she’s “mixed very festive Lebanese music with the mosquitos of the Far North,” before launching into a lively song with marked oriental and northern influences.

Makdissi-Warren, Etok and Segalowitz have been working and touring together around the world in the Oktoecho ensemble where they created the katajjaq throat singing project Samianiq, winner of the 2018 Album of the year Opus Award for world-beat and traditional Quebec music.

An installation of stained-glass caribou and migrating geese brought the North in sharp focus at the heart of Place des Festival. © Simon Van Vliet

While Présence Autochtone features the work of indigenous artists from across the globe, from Siberia to New Zealand and from Colombia to Norway, “the North is, in the end, very present,” André Dudemain comments.

He says because the First Peoples of the Arctic have had less contact with the European culture and modern way of life until recently “traditional culture is often preserved and maintained” in northern communities. By bringing artists from those communities to Montreal, the First Peoples Festival hopes to build and reinforce bridges between native nations as well as with non-indigenous peoples. “It’s the spirit of the North coming down to Montreal to meet the spirit of the South,” Dudemaine says, rejoicing at the “strong and numerous ties” he sees growing year after year in Montreal.