The Gchi Dewin Festival brings national Indigenous and non-Indigenous presence to northern Ontario’s Anishinaabe territory and Parry Sound region. The annual storytelling festival, now in its fifth year, happened on November 28-30, 2019. The festival is free to the public and takes place at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for Performing Arts.
The Festival name Gchi Dewin which means “Big Heart” in Anishinaabemowin aims to bridge traditional knowledge with contemporary mediums of storytelling. Encompassed by this year’s theme ‘Prophesy’, the Festival opened with the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, and a special outdoor paddock for two Ojibway Spirit horses and their handlers.
Saturday evening seats were packed featuring comedy from CBC’s newest sketch comedy television series Tall Boyz and The Beaverton’s, Vance Banzo, Stephanie Pangowish of Manifest Destiny’s Child, and Wasauksing Elder and humourist John Rice. The auditorium was filled with local music by the youth of Little Spirit Singers, guitarist and singers Jim Walker and Zeegwon Shilling, a drum and French horn collaboration, and storytellers such as parent-child language educator Chance King and award winning author-journalist Waubgeshig Rice.
Anita Chechock and Rebeka Tabobondung: Festival organizers Anita Chechock and Rebeka Tabobondung opened Saturday evening with the announcement that Tabobondung and her co-collaborator, David Shilling will be taking on Rez91.3 FM from the now retired Vince and Anita Chechock. Tabobondung and her team under Muskrat Magazine are now streaming and broadcasting live at Rez91.com.
“It’s great to do a show like this,” says Tabobondung later in an interview. She says the idea of the Festival was inspired by the rural Northern Ontario rich and vital community knowledge and her experience talking with Elders. “There is so much that people don’t know about Indigenous knowledge and where we are today,” said the Wasauksing First Nation member who is also a Councillor and Publisher of Muskrat Magazine. “I just really wanted an opportunity to share that, to share these stories because we don’t get to share or hear them very often in the mainstream. With the climate crisis, we are in such need of that knowledge and approaches,” she says which hold solutions. “Just as Vince and Anita Chechock who ran Rez radio [we want to] create spaces for Indigenous voices here.”
Elder Jim Dumont: Friday kicked off this year’s focus of Children of the Seventh Fire Prophesy led by Elder Jim Dumont, originally from Shawanaga First Nation. Known as Onaubinisay or “Walks Above the Ground,” Onaubinisay is Chief of the Eastern Doorway of the Midewiwin Three Fires Society, midewiwin, meaning ‘way of the heart’ in Anishinaabemowin. Elder Dumont explained that according to the Anishinaabe prophesy, we are currently in the era of the Seventh Fire and he encouraged all to take positive action now in order to balance our minds, our hearts, and the earth. Onaubinisay explained the pathway of the Seventh Fire depends on choices we now make as humanity. He said we can choose a path of technology motivated by greed and money, or a path that includes raising consciousness and spirituality; which demands going deeper than science by listening to wisdom of the heart. He said if we listen, we can light the Eighth and final Fire of peace and healing when all the four colours – original nations of humanity come together in a nation of brother and sisterhood interconnected to all life on Earth.
Sage Petahtegoose and Kyla Zhowshkawabunokwe Judge: Onaubinisay and emerging youth actor and director Sage Petahtegoose shared the stage also bringing light to prophesy of the Seventh Fire. Petahtegoose’s short documentary, Biskawbiyung: The Return documents the significance of the recent Royal Ontario Museum repatriation of a sacred Midewin pipe and bundle.
Powerful local youth speakers Dawson Bloor and Kyla Zhowshkawabunokwe Judge of the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth and Georgian Bay Biosphere shared the story of the group’s intensive 20-day project of building a traditional wiigwaas jiimaan – birchbark canoe. The duo also premiered the Parry Sound High School collaboration of the song “Human” which was selected in the 2019 CBC Music Class Challenge.
Cleeo Deville and Julianna Mshkiwiinziikwe Nanibush: After Friday morning’s documentary screenings of Youth Unstoppable: The Rise of the Global Youth Climate Movement with elementary and high school attendees, Parry Sound High School Students Cleeo Deville and Julianna Mshkiwiinziikwe Nanibush revealed the collaborative mural with Rama First Nation artist and OCAD graduate, Chief Lady Bird.
The piece aimed to create greater Anishinaabe representation in the school and holds elements of the youth movement and the Anishinaabe Seventh Fire prophecy.
Andrea Dyer, Rhonda Snow, and Terry Jenkins: On Saturday afternoon, a trio of Indigenous and Canadian Cowgirls shared their stories connecting one another to preserve a rare pre-contact Ojibwe horse breed with the Indigenous nations in the Parry Sound region.
Alongside artist Rhonda Snow, Terry Jenkins of TJ Stables who cares for 15 of these horses, Andrea Dyer, of the Chippewas on the Thames First Nation and a Constable for Chatham-Kent Police shared her healing journey from PTSD through equine therapy.
Trevor Kirczenow: Throughout the three women’s presentations, the connection and collaboration acknowledged Trevor Kirczenow who was in the audience with his son. Having bought an Ojibwe horse from Snow, Trevor traveled from Winnipeg with his partner Ken MacDonald to share their connection and research around the history of the breed.
“It completely transformed our lives, the people we have met and connected with, it’s been extraordinary,” he says in an interview. “More than just the horses, it’s part of truth and reconciliation, especially the way the government attempted to destroy them and nearly did completely destroy them.”
Trevor who is now a breed registrar for the Ojibway Horse Society, also ran as a Liberal nominee for this year’s federal elections. “Being able to raise awareness about what happened, what people working together were able to save, and then going forward in the future maintaining this breed is something Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are doing together and have already been doing for decades.”
Ken MacDonald and Jodi Contin: Saturday night French Horn musician and long-time Festival of the Sound performer Ken MacDonald of the Winnipeg Symphony partnered with Wasauksing drummer Jodi Contin in a performance of the survival story of the Ojibwe Spirit Horse.
Vance Banzo: With proof again that one’s own whit in cracking a joke can open up the world of opportunity, CBC’s newest award-winning sketch comedy television series TallBoyz’s Vance Banzo took to the stage. As a Saulteaux/Cree member of Fishing Lake First Nation, Saskatchwan, he has also been on The Beaverton and debuting in the Richard Wagamese feature film Indian Horse.
Stephanie Pangowish: From pow wow trail crushes to beadwork dealing, Wiikwenkoong’s Stephanie Pangowish showed no boundaries making the crowd laugh with her rez humour. As a Trent University graduate Stephanie is a member of an Indigenous women stand-up comedy group Manifest Destiny’s Child hold onto necessary role of humour in hope and resiliency.
Local talent, Anishinaabe musician Jim Walker sang beautiful ballads of family and home while paying homage to the timeless genius of Country Music.
Zeegwon Shilling: Zeegwon Shilling, the fourteen-year-old who went viral online from a performance of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah last November, performed on guitar The Beatles and Neil Young songs with harmonica, he says he just learned to play three days prior. He recently made an acting debut on CBC’s The Coroner.
Drew Bloor: Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik School student Drew Bloor attended the three-day Festival. Supporting his friend and young performer Zeegwon Shilling, Bloor says it is exciting to see him play. He also said the birchbark canoe presentation was amongst his favourites.
“It’s cool how they can build something like that in 20 days,” he says. “Dawson and Kyla, they have a lot of power in their words.”
Waubgeshig Rice: CBC Radio’s Up North host Waubgeshig Rice of Wasauksing, reads from his latest post-apocalyptic novel Moon of the Crusted Snow where rural First Nation community members are the hope for survival. He says this was his last book tour for the novel.
Throughout the Festival, there were many different vendors located in the Stockey Centre lobby including an open feast catered by the local First Nation business C&H foods.
One of the many vendors was Chrystal Tabobondung who is founder and educator of RISE: Recognize Assist Include Support Engage shared, “I wanted the educational piece and bridge that gap in the lack of understanding of our people and our culture.”
Chrystal says having experienced racism in the region, Festivals like this help bridge these gaps between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, helping to put a face to the diversity of talent from the surrounding five First Nations she says are ‘alive and vibrant’ communities.
Sally Bailey and Anita Chechock: Local volunteer Sally Bailey says she has been to the Festival every year. “It’s awesome! It’s overwhelming,” she says. In consideration of history with relations with First Nations the Festival is much needed. ”It brings a lot of people in, people are so warm here.” She assisted festival co-organizer and Rez91 founder Anita Chechock.
Rev. Maureen MacLeod-Oliver who was the United Churches of Otter Lake, Orville, Nobel, and Carling, says she attends the Festival annually with her husband. “It’s incredible,” she says.
“I really honour and value the teaching of Indigenous people from one generation to the next, and here, the young people, the eighth generation have learned to build this canoe, and I’m sure they’ll pass it on to their own and it will kind of restart that again.” she says.
She says she now resides in Orangeville the the area is close to her heart. “I think they have so much to teach us,” she says. “That’s something we didn’t learn in our generations, I don’t think we passed things down to our children well.”
She says she believes more people should live minimally for a more healthier lifestyle and for the preservation of the environment. “We need to approach the leaders of the world, she says. “Indigenous people have a good handle on climate change, of what causes climate change, and how we have abused the resources available to us on our planet.”
Nathan Chechock: Attendee and Festival volunteer Nathan Chechock says the festival was very powerful for him as the first time back in the region in 12 years. “It’s really beautiful…for Native culture to be celebrated in high definition,” he says of the directions Rez91.3 FM has gone over the years which started as a hobby in his parent’s basement.
He says the Festival has given him a greater sense of hope. [We] are finally becoming more comfortable with our identities again. We’ve been so displaced for a long time and that pain is just crippling. It’s so beautiful to see that, to actually see people bridging gaps.”
“If I have anything to say to somebody who has gone through being almost ashamed of who you were because you didn’t see any good examples of it for a long time, that it’s okay to heal, he says thoughtfully. “It’s okay to love yourself and its okay to forgive yourself and it’s okay to forgive others.”
“I think shame is something our culture has held onto for a long time and now it is so wonderful and beautiful to see that being lifted. So anybody going through that, it’s okay. And you are worth doing the work.”
Sandra LePage and Kelly McIntyre: Sandra LePage and her friend Kelly McIntyre were offering free samples of their smoked fish from her and her husband’s 20-year business of B. Lepage Fishery based in Nobel. As a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario she says it was an honour to be asked to attend and represent.
“The significance of this Festival is to teach others about the struggles and the truth about Indigenous people,” she says. “I felt like I was at home. My friend was glad to have come, it brought tears to her eyes.”