Entering its seventh year, the Rubaboo Arts Festival has been cultivating aboriginal performances long before Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up in June 2015.
The national inquiry into Canada’s history of residential schools has invigorated a nationwide conversation about the relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. But when asked if the commission impacted the direction of the Rubaboo festival this year, artistic director Christine Frederick is frank: “I don’t want to sound uppity, but not at all. We have been doing this work for decades.”
Frederick says that themes of colonialism’s painful effects have been prominent in indigenous arts “way before” she started making art more than 30 years ago.
“I do not want to say that the TRC is a great big saviour for indigenous people,” she says. “It’s not that the TRC has revealed these things, but it is another method to get connection and the voice out.”
The TRC approached Frederick two years ago (she chaired the Edmonton Arts Council at the time) before the commission rolled through Edmonton in the spring of 2014. The commission was interested in having aboriginal artists perform, but merely as entertainment to bracket the “main event” of listening circles and survivor gatherings. Frederick was hurt—indigenous art, she says, can’t be boiled down to a talent show.
Rather, Rubaboo springs from the philosophy that art is a powerful medicine: something to enjoy and appreciate, but also something that wields the power to nourish and heal.
In many ways, the meaning is reflected in the festival’s title. “Rubaboo” is a Métis-Michif word for a stew made by trappers and voyageurs, eaten in the darkest and coldest times of year. After sitting down with the festival’s elders, Frederick realized that rubaboo is “the food that feeds our spirit when we need it the most.”
“That is absolutely what the festival is about,” she says. “Art is so much more than entertainment. It is about being moved. It is about articulating our humanity to the Creator, as referenced in our traditional ceremonies.”
For two weeks, Rubaboo will explore this theme through a lineup made of both traditional and contemporary indigenous artists. The festival opens with HUFF, Cliff Cardinal’s award-winning one-man play about a family’s struggle with solvent abuse. Other events include a visit from Canada’s first international indigenous speaker series, REDx, a contemporary dance performance narrating the life of Louis Riel’s sister, and a Festival Fusion event hosting live collaborative art-making between aboriginal and French artists.
While Frederick is confident in the entertainment value of this year’s lineup, she hopes the themes of Rubaboo’s performances stay with audience members long after the festival ends. She says these kinds of works are critical to gaining a better understanding of ourselves as a country.
“I know that by revealing a greater understanding of who indigenous people are, we’ll have a greater understanding of who we are as a collective identity here in Canada.”