Like many arts events in the region, the Fringe North International Theatre Festival was cancelled for 2020 due to the ongoing restrictions related to the pandemic.
Fortunately, in partnering with the Arts Council of Algoma, Fringe North found a way to bring a special project called Project Nishin: Indigenous Artists Walking in a Good Way forward to align with the Ontario Culture Days festival.
Ontario Culture Days is an annual celebration of arts, culture and heritage that normally includes in-person events. This year the celebration is focused on digital projects and being held strictly online.
“Fringe North and Algoma Arts Council had funds to do an Indigenous theatre project. They asked Adam [Proulx] and myself if we would lead it,” says Sarah Gartshore, a part-Anishinaabe, part-settler educator and theatre creator who, along with Proulx, are Oshkaabewisag/Helpers for the project.
Proulx is a theatre artist originally from Northern Ontario and currently based in Toronto.
According to their press release for the project, Project Nishin centers around five artists, all innovators in their diverse fields of creation within the theatre world, who produced short videos.
The project vision was to create a space for connection and sharing of ideas among Indigenous creatives during a global health pandemic.
“When discussing the project intention, we decided that number one, the project needed to be focused on the well-being of the artists, which meant that our supporting team needed to be brilliant,” says Gartshore.
The duo helped to pull together a support team consisting of Nokomis Martina Osawamick (Elder and Anishinaabemowin translator), Jocelyn Dotta (ASL interpreter), Steven Roste (technical support and design), and Brent Wohlberg (technical support) for the project.
“Our Elder, and Anishinaabemowin translator, Nokomis Martina Osawamick made sure we all felt well held and secure throughout the process,” she says, noting that in addition to Osawamick’s support, the entire team worked hard to meet artists’ technical needs.
“The intention of the project was to create a moment where artists who are deeply affected and quite disconnected from their arts communities because of the global health pandemic could step into a space and feel connected to each other and well held enough by the team, to create again after a strange hiatus.”
“It was important to us to remind artists that they are still artists and that their stories have value. From Fringe North’s perspective too, given the racial turmoil going on in the world, it seemed like a good opportunity to reach out to BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of color] and other equity-seeking artists so that maybe they will consider being a part of the festival when it is able to safely return; or maybe it will serve to inspire someone else to think, ‘that’s something I’d like to be a part of.’”
Gartshore notes that theatre artists have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic.
“The theatre space and its beautiful people are family and we never take that for granted, which makes our sense of loss easy to name but very painful in actuality,” she says.
The transition from theatre to the video medium made the most sense during these uncertain times.
“Project Nishin incorporated video … as the safest artistic outlet at that moment, but central to our vision was connection between artists. Artists often hold the superpowers of both making others feel seen and being vulnerable enough to be seen, in a very fast amount of time.” says Gartshore.
This connection became readily apparent during the team’s virtual gatherings with the artists.
“[W]atching their generosity with each other and the team was the absolute highlight of this process for me. It was a moment of connection which I wouldn’t say is more important now than before the pandemic, but more acutely obvious in its importance.”
The five Indigenous artists involved in the project are Vanessa Ominika (Ojibwe/Potawatomi from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory), Jasmine Manning (Ojibway Kwe, band member of Cape Croker First Nation with paternal roots in Stoney Point), Eli Chilton (Moose Factory Ontario in the James Bay lowlands, member of the Mushkego Cree or Swampy Cree), Thomas Dylan-Cook (Ojibway and Caucasian descent, born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, grew up in Batchewana and Garden River First Nations), and Aria Evans (Afro-Indigenous and settler heritage, Toronto based).
“I know Aria Evans and Eli Chilton from working with them previously and knowing of their brilliance,” says Gartshore.
“I know Vanessa Ominika and Jasmine Manning personally. They both live extraordinary lives and have moved through much adversity to put themselves on a beautiful path of reclamation of both their cultures and theatre crafts. Thomas-Dylan Cook was recommended to me by his nitowis Dawn Roach, who is a trusted friend and community member.”
Gartshore notes that some artists had ideas for projects before the first Project Nishin meeting, others needed space to work things out, and one had a video already created and just wanted to add Anishinaabemowin subtitles.
“All the artists had brilliant ideas,” she says.
Proulx notes that it was important that the artists had the freedom to create any video they wanted.
“The only parameter was that there were no parameters,” he says.
“We really did want the artists to come up with something that they were proud of and that they could use for their portfolio in the future … [s]o we just wanted the artists to trust that whatever story they wanted to tell was going to be plenty interesting and valuable.”
Asked if the artists sharing elements of Indigenous ways of knowing in their videos happened organically, Gartshore says, “One difference between Indigenous and Western ways of knowing is that Indigenous folks know that when we learn something, it is not separate from us.”
“Knowledge is alive, like our language, like our earth and it brings responsibility. We feel that responsibility is to the next seven generations. Although the Project Nishin artists' knowledge bases, including language and protocols, are sophisticated, complex, unique and tied to their clans and territories, they all hold knowledge and responsibilities that are steeped in a deep respect for the land and water and acknowledge a reciprocal relationship. It is a common thread throughout the videos and yes, it happens organically.”
Even though the project is part of Ontario Culture Days, which ends on Oct. 25, the videos will remain available online beyond the festival.
“[The videos] will stay up and be freely available to the public,” says Proulx.
“I think it is important for this project and also for the Fringe Festival itself [to have] these wonderful videos up on the website serves as sort of a welcome mat to future artists and audiences alike.”
There have been some initial discussions about continuing the project in future years, even after the pandemic is over.
“We are in discussions with Fringe North right now about Project Nishin continuing on,” says Gartshore.
“Adam and I believe we have a solid grasp on what the project needs to grow and feel that when a project is as awesome [nishin] as this one, it makes sense and feels good to continue to nurture it.”
Project Nishin videos are available for free viewing on the Fringe North website. Click on each of the artists’ photos to read their bio and watch their videos.
The community is encouraged to send questions or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.Project Nishin was made possible by funding from the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada.