‘Life, love, the pursuit of rights’: Setting the stage for the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival

Starting Monday, Indigenous artists from across Ontario will be offering comedy, music, theatre, and more at a brand-new festival
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Jun 21, 2021
Left to right: Zaagi’idwin Collective members Lois Apaquash, Sarah Gartshore, Darcy Trudeau, Crystal Kimewon, and Bill Sanders. Not pictured, Alaya Kimewon. (Courtesy of Sarah Gartshore)



In 1982, Trent University hosted the second World Indigenous Theatre Festival, attracting performers from across the globe to Peterborough. Now, nearly 30 years later, the university is hosting the inaugural Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, which organizers say is the world’s first Indigenous Fringe Festival. For Joeann Argue, who created the new festival alongside Lee Bolton and Drew Hayden Taylor, there are parallels between the two events. “In some ways, we’re just following in those footsteps [of 1982] — trying to showcase what Indigenous people do that isn’t what everyone expects, culturally,” says Argue, a professor of Indigenous performance at Trent.

The week-long festival, “an unjuried, uncensored festival for independent performers in theatre, dance, music and comedy,” takes its name from the Anishinaabemowin word for the Peterborough area. It’s set to open Monday with a Facebook Live event Monday, and in-person performances of six shows will begin Wednesday. Originally scheduled for 2020, the festival was postponed due to COVID-19. For this year, organizers had prepared for an all-outdoor event with in-person audiences capped at 10 people. But last week, Argue says, Peterborough Public Health, after having initially given the go-ahead, told the team that upon reviewing the current COVID-19 restrictions a second time, it had determined that no audiences of any size were allowed. Their options were to cancel the festival or make it a drive-in event. They chose the latter, building a stage in a university parking lot. 

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With “massive schedule changes,” organizers called every ticket holder to see whether they wanted to rebook, Argue says. Almost everybody did. They considered moving to a virtual event, Argue says, but decided against it: “I think that people are just hungering to be in spaces with other people right now, since we have been so isolated for the last 16-odd months, and certainly for the Indigenous community, we’re used to coming together. So this is one small opportunity to come out and celebrate Indigenous performance.”

TVO.org speaks with three NIFF performers about their upcoming shows. 

D.B. McLeod

woman in a dress standing against a wall with the drawing of a tree
(Courtesy of D.B. McLeod)

McLeod, an Anishinaabe comedian and co-creator of the comedy collective Manifest Destiny’s Child, will be performing NIFF on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. “[My comedy] talks about my life, the funny things that happen, and looks at racism and misogyny and being Indigenous, being an Indigenous professional in the city,” she says. McLeod lives in Toronto, where she grew up.  

TVO.org: What is the importance of being able to gather in person and be in this festival? What’s the significance of being in this first NIFF? 

McLeod: I’m really proud and honoured to be able to tell jokes about Indigenous life — that I get to challenge the narrative of what Canada sees as an Indigenous woman. There are only a couple of narratives of Indigenous women, and they’re not that Indigenous women are funny, that Indigenous women are professionals. It’s usually one of victimhood. And not that we shouldn’t be talking about those stories — collectively, as a country, we need to be talking about all the realities of Indigenous people — but sometimes we only talk about the negative. And I’m really honoured to be able to push past that a little bit and talk about my own life and challenge the dominant stereotypes. 

Also, I was thinking about it, and when I was a kid, there were very little — I would say no — Indigenous role models. I didn’t grow up in community, so in the mainstream, growing up as a Canadian and not as an Indigenous person, I did not see any people that looked like me other than Buffy Sainte-Marie, maybe. Of course, she’s an idol. I grew up in a time where people were still ashamed of their heritage, or I was sort of brought up to believe that I should be ashamed of my heritage. My children, who are now almost 20 and 17, they grew up only seeing Indigenous excellence. 

TVO.org: What’s exciting or inspiring you right now? 

McLeod: Rutherford Falls. It’s a comedic TV show. It was so amazing, as an almost 40-year-old, to (1) see people who looked like me on TV, and (2) for them all to be funny. Then, also, there were a couple of monologues by Michael Greyeyes [who plays Terry Thomas, a protagonist on the show] that talk about Indigenous experiences. I have waited my almost 40 years on this planet to be able to see that kind of representation on TV. They’re just Native people living lives. I think I probably cried more than once watching the show because of the representation that now exists for Indigenous folks. I mean, there should be more — there needs to be more — and it’s a start. There’s slowly starting to be a collective awakening by the mainstream, of, like, “Oh, Indigenous people still live here! Oh!” 

“Tiger” Will Mason

Mason will be playing songs from his 2001 album Long Walk 49 and from his “musical

man in blue shirt playing a guitar
(Courtesy of "Tiger" Will Mason)

friends and influences” on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. For many years, Mason played in a popular Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover band called 4 Way Street. Mason, who is Mohawk, grew up in Niagara, lived in Toronto, and is now based in Ottawa. 

TVO.org: How is it that you came to be playing at the Fringe fest next week? 

Mason: When I realized I got in, I was kind of shocked. And then I find out it’s the very first one of its kind in the world. It’s kind of nice being involved with a first; I’ve been involved with a couple of different firsts now. I’m kind of a nobody, but I’m not just an Indigenous musician. There are Indigenous musicians, and then there are musicians who are Indigenous. My focus isn’t just on Indigenous music, you know? I am not going to walk around with a hand drum, singing drum songs all the time.

I do more than that, but I have done that. I have a worldview; my worldview is similar to my Indigenous worldview as a Mohawk. My late brother, he introduced me to so many different people: he was a world-travelled activist; he had a specific view about all this stuff, too. And we would get into conversations about music history. The year that he died, this movie came out called Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World. It was basically about the Indigenous roles in music history. When you watch the movie, you find out that Native people were involved in almost every kind of popular music that exists today — and not only involved, but they were progenitors. 

TVO.org: What are some of your songs about?

Mason: Life, love, the pursuit of rights and equality for Indigenous people — and all people. There are some really personal songs on there, too. I wrote a waltz, my first waltz, my first and only waltz. There’s an R&B song that’s influenced by Stevie Wonder and some of the flamenco players that I’ve heard over the years. There’s a pop song that I wrote with a guy who’s now one of the top festival organizers in southern Ontario. There are a couple of songs on there that are definitely Indigenous tracks, like the cover track, “Long Walk 49,” which was written about the Red People’s Long Walk of solidarity across Canada in 1983 to ’84. It was kind of a love song, too. There’s a song written about when I went to Big Mountain, Arizona. We stood against the friggin’ U.S. government dive-bombing us with airplanes because they wanted to get us all out of there so they could come in and mine for coal and uranium. And that battle is still going on in Arizona right now to this day; that was almost 40 years ago. 

Zaagi’idwin Collective/Sarah Gartshore

group of people sitting on stairs
(Courtesy of Sarah Gartshore)

Gartshore and the Zaagi’idiwin Collective will be presenting the play Streetheart on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Gartshore wrote the piece while taking a course with Karyn Recollet, a Cree artist and scholar who focuses on Indigenous performance. Featuring six performers, it is about a homeless community. “A part-Anishinaabe, part-settler educator, and theatre creator,” Gartshore lives and works in Sudbury. 

TVO.org: How did you get into theatre? 

Gartshore: I took a theatre course as an elective [in university]. My sister was, like, “Take a theatre course,” so I thought, Oh yeah, fine, I’ll go hang out with these theatre nerds. And I totally found my home there. I fell in love with theatre through performance. I loved Judith Thompson’s play The Crackwalker, specifically. I thought I was falling in love with acting, but it turns out when I was acting in shows that didn’t have that depth, that kind of heart, it didn’t feel the same — so it was actually the storytelling. That’s what I was remembering, coming back to.

And then I went to teacher’s college — I was a single mom, and you can’t raise your kids in the theatre. There was no money in a town in the north to sustain that, so that’s where I wrote my first play. Then I just wanted to be around the theatre community again, and I took a course with Karyn Recollet, she’s at [the University of Toronto] now, and she introduced me to The Scrubbing Project by the Turtle Gals, which is [written and performed by] Michelle St. John, Jani Lauzon, and Monique Mojica. And Muriel Miguel directed that piece. [Miguel is a mentor for the NIFF performers, alongside Hayden Taylor.] Before I read that play, I thought my work was s**t because it wasn’t a well-made play or it wasn’t these proper ways of writing scripts that I had been taught in school, so I thought it was just unruly stuff. But, in reading The Scrubbing Project, it gave me a wink and a nod, and said, your work doesn’t need to fit the colonial form — that the wild and unruly nature of my work had company.  

TVO.org: Being able to return to live performance — what’s that going to be like? 

Gartshore: As far as performing now, I think that if what was happening with the uncovering of the crime scenes in our country and the murdered children’s bodies wasn’t happening, we might be able to move into some excitement for live theatre, and surely that may be there.

But, really, for us, if this wasn’t an Indigenous theatre festival, we wouldn’t be doing it right now. So, say if this was an in-person theatre festival that was non-Indigenous, with what’s happening now, we would have pulled out, 100 per cent. Because it’s an Indigenous theatre festival, they are holding us well; they’re working hard to make sure that the folks feel safe and connected. We’re going to go because it’s healing to gather right now. It’s going to be taxing on everyone, so that’s something I’ve had to think about.

Aside from all the truths that are coming out in this country, the people in the company are also living through a pandemic, and they’re living very complex lives, so it’s a big ask of them, but it feels good. It feels like this is going to be a positive experience for everyone who goes, because it feels like we’re giving, and the festival is giving. The festival is receiving, and we’re receiving. 

Update: NIFF announced June 21 that "due to an unfortunate family situation, Zaagi’idiwin Collective will not be performing Streetheart at NIFF this year."

Tickets to NIFF can still be reserved by emailing indigenousfringefest@gmail.com; 100 per cent of sales go directly to the artists.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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