WINNIPEG — It wasn’t long ago that First Nations people were banned from gathering in large groups, performing their traditional songs or dance.
Those laws are now gone and a celebration of the once-forbidden activities draws more than 20,000 people to downtown Winnipeg every fall. The song and powwow brings together people from across North America to revel in aboriginal culture, artistry and music.
Now celebrating its 10th year, the festival carries a new significance in an age of reconciliation.
“We’ve been up against some pretty trying times. When you look at these policies and how they’ve attacked the culture, it’s amazing that anything survived during that time,” said Lisa Meeches, director of the festival.
“When we talk about Manito Ahbee festival, we look at it as not just an arts and culture festival but an opportunity to be victorious. We want everyone celebrating with us.”
The festival — which kicks off Sept. 9 with the lighting of a sacred fire and runs until Sept. 13 — includes a showcase of aboriginal music from gospel and round dancing to square dancing and jigging. It also features the Indigenous Music Awards and one of the largest powwows in North America.
The festival draws people from across North America, the majority of whom are from outside Manitoba, Meeches said.
“Canadians and Manitobans who want to learn the best of who we are, not what’s in the headlines, (should) visit us and come and learn and celebrate with us,” Meeches said.
“Come and feel the pride we should have been feeling all this time.”
The idea for the festival was born after aboriginal cabinet minister Eric Robinson gathered a group of indigenous artists in 2004 and asked what the government could do to support cultural tourism. The name of the festival was bestowed during a spiritual ceremony and named for a sacred site in eastern Manitoba which Meeches said First Nations were forbidden to visit until the 1960s.
Manito Ahbee is Ojibwa for “where the Creator sits.” Meeches said the name Manitoba is derived from the same name.
“We needed to duplicate the spirit of the sacred site and what it once represented to indigenous people in downtown Winnipeg in the hopes that all nations would come together and honour each other’s gifts,” she said.
Lorne Cardinal, best known for his role as Davis Quinton on the television series “Corner Gas,” is hosting the festivities as he has since the beginning.
“A festival like this just helps with the identity of this country,” he said. “t makes it a stronger fabric if everyone can just acknowledge everyone’s differences and accept it.
“This is a culture that was outlawed at one point by the government of Canada. This culture is still alive and, despite the challenges, we are still thriving.”
Anything can happen with a live show like this one, Cardinal added. Several times the teleprompter has gone black during the show, leaving him to improvise under the glare of the lights and thousands in the audience.
“It’s a good workout for the heart,” he said with a laugh.”We put on a great show. Every year our budget gets smaller, but we keep somehow making the show better than the year before.”