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Westfest celebrates the art of diversity

By Bradley Turcotte – 

Kitchissippi’s annual multi-disciplinary festival celebrated fifteen years of music and art June 8-10 at its new Tom Brown Arena location.

Westfest founder Elaina Martin’s pleas for a weekend of perfect weather prevailed. Elaina told Kitchissippi Times “mother nature” played a large part in the weekend’s success. Tufts of Eastern cottonwood wafted through the air Saturday afternoon, giving the festival grounds a touch of otherworldly serenity.

Kitchissippi local, Kristen Irvine, caught Friday night headliner Bear Witness and gushed about her admiration for A Tribe Called Red. “They put on a great show,” Kristen says. “We enjoyed ourselves.”

Kristen was one of many parents who brought their kids out to Westfest. The children’s area was more contained and secure than in past years, Kristen noted, a feature of the festival she appreciated.

The children’s area at Westfest 2018 was enclosed and set apart from the rest of the ‘fest at Tom Brown Arena this year. Photo by Andrea Tomkins

Saturday’s roster included Iyono Ede and the Leading Lights, Rita Carter and Julie Corrigan.

Kimberly Sunstrum was one of Westfest attendee Jamie Cote’s favourite acts.

“She’s beautiful,” Jaime noted. “She has really good energy on stage.”

The pinnacle of the festival was the reunion of the band Elaina calls her “teenage superstar” group. The Pursuit of Happiness rocked the Thom Fountain Team stage Saturday night.

A “gen x-er” himself, Kitchissippi ward city councillor Jeff Leiper admits The Pursuit of Happiness single I’m an Adult Now dropped at just the right time in his life.

“It spoke to me then and it is burned into my brain. I will never ever forget that song,” Jeff laughs. “It is fantastic bringing them back here.”

The Pursuit of Happiness headlined Westfest on Saturday night. Photo by Andrea Tomkins

In addition to musical attractions, Saturday kicked off with a panel discussion titled “The 83rd Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission signals collaborative art-making as a priority.” The panel featured artist and activist Cara Tier‍‍‍ney, Bear Witness, founder of the DIY Spring Festival Elsa Mirzaei and Carleton University Art Gallery’s Fiona Wright.

Jeff attended the panel and said he was “struck” by the broad definition of community.

“There was a great discussion as well about how to successfully collaborate on an equal basis,” he said. “It gave me a lot to think about.”

The festival closed out Sunday with performances by Niishzhoowe, Bad Parent, King Kimbit, and an inspired performance by headliner Cody Coyote.

Elaina thanked the event sponsors and legions of volunteers while addressing the crowds Saturday night.

“Without my incredible team of volunteers and crew, none of us would be here. I am not alone. I am one and I am surrounded by a circle of the most incredibly loving, kind and hard-working people.”

This year’s edition exceeded the team’s dreams and expectations, Elaina said, summing up Westfest 2018 as “a complete weekend of non-stop, incredible artists. I love it. We’re not moving from here.”

The new location at Tom Brown Arena was a hot topic for festival goers and Westfest performers, with most savouring the new digs. Many people Kitchissippi Times spoke to loved the intimacy of the performer/audience relationship at the new venue.

The terrain could have been “a little more flat,” attendee Kevin Daniels said with a smile. “It’s a little awkward but it works.”

Attending Westfest for the third year, Kevin particularly enjoyed Sunday headliner Cody Coyote’s performance. The number of First Nations performers every year at Westfest is an example of togetherness, Kevin said.

“We all have got to learn to live together,” he said. “That is what Canada is supposed to be all about. That is why we signed treaties with everybody arriving here so that we could all live in coexistence. That is what it is all about. This is a fine example of that coexistence.”

As a gay actor who has performed in many Great Canadian Theatre Company productions, Michael Mancini hosted the Saturday interstitial segments with comedian Kelly Dear and says we need more queer leaders like Elaina who promote LGBTQ talent.

“She is an incredibly strong queer leader. I love what she has done and that she has been able to do this for 15 years. Who can say that they have been able to do that?” Michael asks. “She is someone who has accomplished a lot and has done a lot for the community. Westfest is super queer but it is everything else too. It is unique in that way.”

The variety of Westfest’s performers is one of the reasons Jeff is proud the event is a Kitchissippi Ward staple.

“It shows through in the lineup. It shows through in who comes out here. It is deliberately a diverse, inclusive event,” Jeff said.

Kimberly Sunstrum, a clear festival fan favourite, reached out to Elaina last year and was allotted ten minutes at Westfest 2017 before playing a full set at this year’s celebration. As a queer woman of colour, Kimberly said it is important to be represented, supported and to feel safe.

“Regardless of where I am playing, I want those things to be implemented. The fact that this whole entire festival is inclusive and queer-positive… that’s all I need to say. I can’t even express how important, necessary and relevant that is.”

With the recent Ontario election results, Kimberly, who will perform at Bluesfest on July 7, wonders what the future holds for “people of colour, for people who are queer, people who are different, who are differently-bodied, differently-abled, who are not the norm.”

Elaina fostering this platform for marginalized communities is crucial, Kimberly says, adding she is thankful for the Westfest founder’s “loud ass voice.”

In Elaina’s own booming voice, she decreed to the crowd Saturday night that the diversity of Westfest is not only deliberate but has an end goal.

“Together we will make change. Together we will do this. We will be together and we will all be equal. That is what this festival is about. It is about being Canadian. About being an Ottawan. About inviting our friends from other cities, other communities and all being together to enjoy all of us.”

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