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Looking back at Westfest (now with full event guide!)

By Bradley Turcotte – 

From a one-day festival staged in a convenience store parking lot to a weekend-long showcase of multi-disciplinary art, founder Elaina Martin reminisces about Westfests past and looks ahead to the future as the event celebrates 15 years.

>When Ottawa’s perpetual summer construction shut down Richmond Road in 2004, business owners and the Westboro Village Business Improvement Area (WVBIA) panicked as the absence of traffic meant declining revenues for shops. Having recently wrapped the “challenging” Rock City Women’s Festival in Wakefield, Quebec, Martin was introduced to members of the WVBIA and learned of the neighbourhood’s plight.

Elaina’s solution was to pitch a free street party with diverse musical acts set right in the middle of the dusty, torn up stretch.

Staged at what was once Mac’s Milk, the inaugural Westfest featured Jane Siberry as the headliner and drew five thousand attendees.

“We knew we had something,” Elaina recalls.

Elaina Martin at Westfest 2017. Photo by Ted Simpson

As funding from the BIA and sponsors increased over the years, so did festival attendance, hitting one hundred thousand in its fifth year. By 2012, Westfest programming spanned 14 city blocks.

“We all know what Westfest did for Westboro Village,” Elaina says. “It put it on the map. Half of the businesses that moved in did so because of the excitement that surrounded Westfest.”

With all of the festival’s success and positive impact on the community, there have also been moments of controversy.

The WVBIA and Westfest parted ways in 2015, one year into a two-year contract. 

Elaina says Westfest could not continue post-2015 without support from the community and generous sponsors.

“Their rallying behind us at that time gave us the strength to shake off the dust of the painful experience and continue.”

Looking back on past years, Elaina says the Westfest team is happier than ever to produce the event without having to filter their plans and programming through someone else’s lens.

“When people give you a lot of money they want things their way. Their way might not be inclusive or diverse,” Elaina says. “We are happier. I am happier as a producer in year 15 than I ever was. Now the decisions are all ours.”

After the 2015 incident, Westfest closed its permanent office and cut all staff. This “club” of Westfest volunteers is notable, Elaina says, as many have been with the festival from the beginning. Elaina brought some on as teens and has attended their weddings and the christenings of their children.

“We love being together. We love the hard work. We love what we are doing. We love the outcome. That is a milestone; having a team that is so dedicated.”

Always dedicated to presenting a diverse roster of performers, this year’s programming includes acts Elaina describes as “mind-blowing” like Leonard Sumner and Witch Prophet in addition to headliners The Pursuit of Happiness and Bear Witness of A Tribe Called Red. 

“There is no tokenism at Westfest,” Elaina says. “We didn’t just start putting indigenous acts on stage when this became trendy. We have been doing it for 15 years, the same with people of colour, black artists and queer artists. Westfest has always been that singular event in Ottawa that has one, always been free and two, has always introduced new art forms.”

Additionally, this year’s edition features a panel discussion spurned by the call to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission signalling collaborative art making as a priority and a stage dedicated to young, local artists.

While other festivals discourage attendees from bringing lawn chairs, Elaina says Westfest revelers should bring their own chairs and blankets as the forecast calls for sublime weather.

Elaina says she is “excited, tired and proud” to be celebrating Westfest’s crystal anniversary. But just as Westfest has changed in 15 years, the climate that allows a free festival to continue is shifting as well.

“If we can continue to adjust and change and continue to find just enough sponsorship to do what we want to do artistically, I have no doubt that this festival will continue.”

For more information about Westfest, go to westfest.ca. You can also view the program below:

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