Innu Nikamu music festival breaks through racial divide on Quebec's North Shore

Organizers of the Innu Nikamu festival on Quebec’s North Shore say Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists will share the stage at its 34th edition, in an effort to build bridges with Mani-Utenam's neighbours.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists share stage at 34th edition of Mani-Utenam event

The Festival Innu Nikamu's co-ordinator and programming director, Kim Fontaine, says the Mani-Utenam event attracts as many as 14,000 people every year. (Julia Page/CBC)

Organizers of one of Quebec's largest Indigenous music festivals say Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists will share the stage at the festival's 34th edition — the diverse acts an effort to build bridges with Mani-Utenam's neighbours.

Artisanal crafts, music and traditional foods will be on offer during the four days of the Festival Innu Nikamu.

The festival was founded by local singer-songwriter Florent Vollant, best known as half of the popular folk music duo Kashtin, in the Innu community on Quebec's North Shore.

Mani-Utenam is just 15 kilometres east of Sept-Îles.

Despite being so close by, festival co-ordinator and programming director Kim Fontaine said many Sept-Îles residents have never set foot in the Innu community.

"We're really proud to know that once they've come, they want to come back year after year," said Fontaine.

Running from Aug. 2 to Aug. 5, the festival's 34th edition will feature performances from Algonquin rapper Samian, Inuk "Innuindie" singer Beatrice Deer, Atikamekw composer-performer Laura Niquay and Quebec Cree singer Melisa Pash.

Sharing the stage

The festival's main mission is to showcase Indigenous art and culture.

But in recent years, organizers started inviting non-Indigenous performers like Zachary Richard and Simple Plan, reeling in a new clientele. 

"It's really a great way to reach out to the non-Indigenous community that was slow in coming to the festival and seeing our artists," Fontaine said.

This year, legendary Quebec country artist Paul Daraîche will share the stage with Laurent Mark, a young Innu musician from the neighbouring town of La Romaine.

"We're working together to show that these two cultures can collaborate and build projects together," said Fontaine.

Fontaine said certain stereotypes have been hard to break, despite the festival's strict zero-alcohol-and-drugs policy.

"Sometimes people hesitate because they have this negative image of Indigenous people and alcohol, and we have to fight against this," said Fontaine, describing the festival as a family-friendly gathering. 
Renowned Quebec country music star Paul Daraîche is among the non-Indigenous acts at the 34th edition of the Innu Mikamu music festival. (Radio-Canada)

Inspiring new generation

Growing up in Mani-Utenam, Fontaine said the festival was a rare opportunity to see Indigenous artists perform.

It was also a chance to take part in the traditional meals served under the Shaputuan tents, an important part of the Innu culture he wants to share with the younger generation.

"There are fewer and fewer young people who speak their language, so for them to see artists perform really has an impact," he said.

One of this year's performers, Matiu, said he's watched the festival grow over the years from a handful of local musicians playing acoustic instruments to what it's become today.

"You can take a tour of the province just by hearing all the artists who come here," said Matiu.

Fontaine said new genres of music, like Matiu's, are now taking over the Indigenous music scene.

"We're hearing new colours in the music. Whether it's rap or reggae, they're really touching on other styles of music," said Fontaine.

Burying painful past

Tashtuikanitshuap  and shapatuan tents are set up every year on a large patch of grass at the edge of town.

Once the site of a residential school, the building was demolished years ago but the ruins were only hauled away in 2015 — a relief for many residential school survivors, said Fontaine.

"After we did this, we started seeing people from the community that never came to the festival before — it's like some of their painful memories were released," he said.

The residential school in Mani-Utenam was demolished after its closure in 1971, but the ruins weren't hauled away until 2015. (Library and Archives Canada)

Many survivors told their stories for the first time in 2013, when the federal government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings in Mani-Utenam.

Fontaine said seeing these same people now come out to take part in the festival makes the long hours he puts into the Festival Innu Nikamu worthwhile.

"What was once a place filled with anguish and pain for people has become a place of sharing," he said.

The Festival Innu Nikamu runs from Aug. 2 to 5.


Julia Page


Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.