Nfld. & Labrador

Music and laughs raise spirits and Indigenous representation during 10th Spirit Song Festival

The Spirit Song Festival, celebrating its 10th edition in St. John’s, is in full swing, with a week full of events to honour and celebrate Indigenous arts and culture. Artists performing at the festival say its an important venue to raise awareness for Indigenous art and talent.

‘Comedy, I find, is holding a magnifying glass to the world,’ says Indigenous stand-up comedian

A man in a black hat and black jacket sings into a microphone and plays the guitar.
David Hart, an Innu musician and motivational speaker, plays Monday at the 10th Spirit Song Festival. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

Before every show, Innu musician David Hart says he prays and asks God what type of performance he should bring to his audience.

Hart says he hit the stage at the Spirit Song Festival on Monday knowing he wanted to bring people together through music. So when audience members jumped up on stage and began dancing to his songs mid-performance, he says, he saw his mission fulfilled.

"When people are coming together like that to show love, it builds the energy as an entertainer and helps you to love what you do," said Hart, a musician and motivational speaker from Labrador who lives in Quebec City.

"'Cause it's the people that make you love what you do and they keep moving forward with the music."

People grab hands and dance in a circle.
During Hart's performance, audience members get up on stage and dance to his music. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

The Spirit Song Festival, which is celebrating its 10th edition in St. John's, is in full swing with a week full of events to honour and celebrate Indigenous arts and culture.

Monday's event, called the One Sky Showcase, saw a variety of artists hit the main stage at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John's. Performers included Hart and his band, Inuk soprano singer Deantha Edmunds and dancers Sarah Prosper and Jeanette Kotowich.

Kotowich, who performed a solo contemporary-Métis dance number at Monday's show, also says one of her goals was to engage people with her work. She encouraged audience members to hoot and holler, and clap along with the Métis fiddle song that played as she danced across the stage.

A woman in a black dress closes her eyes and reaches her hand out.
Jeanette Kotowich performed a contemporary solo Métis dance number at Monday's show. In Métis dance, she said, the use of extensive footwork echoes the way horses move in the wild. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

"It just always really gets me going and is such a joy to share the gift of dance and how it's a healing practice," said Kotowich, who's from Saskatchewan and lives in Vancouver.

In Métis dance, Kotowich said, a lot of footwork echoes how horses move in the wild, such as high-energy trot-like movements.

"I just use that [horse] as an image to show how expansive movement can be and how freeing it can be," she said.

Laughs and music raise awareness

The energy from Monday night carried into Tuesday evening's event, which saw performances from standup comedian Janelle Niles and music from Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers.

Niles, a Mi'kmaq woman from Nova Scotia, had audience members doubled over in laughter with her jokes and quick wit. But she says comedy isn't just for laughs — it's a way for her to raise awareness of issues facing Indigenous people that can sometimes be challenging to talk about.

A woman in a purple suit laughs on stage.
Janelle Niles, a Mi'kmaq standup comedian from Nova Scotia, had audience members doubled over in laughter during her comedy set at the Spirit Song Festival. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

"Comedy, I find, is holding a magnifying glass to the world," said Niles. "I find people get more on board with a topic when they're able to laugh with us instead of at us or against us."

This is Niles's first year performing at the Spirit Song Festival, as well as her first time visiting Newfoundland. She says the festival is important to Indigenous people from across Atlantic Canada because it creates awareness through art and song.

"We need more Indigenous representation in the arts," said Niles. "So this really means a lot to me as a First Nation, two-spirited and Black woman to come here and represent my people."

A seven person band plays music on stage.
This year is the first time Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers performed in St. John’s together as a band. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

This is also the first time Alan Syliboy and the Thundermakers performed in St. John's together as a band.

Alan Syliboy, a Mi'kmaq multimedia artist from Nova Scotia, says festivals like Spirit Song are crucial in raising awareness of the Mi'kmaq community, not only in Newfoundland and Labrador, but across Atlantic Canada.

"I knew a lot of Mi'kmaq people from Newfoundland for many years but they weren't recognized," said Syliboy.

"But now it's grown to where you're known, you are visible now, and this festival makes that much easier and draws people. It's all about education and learning and coming together. It's just a fantastic venue to have."

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Jessica Singer is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. You can reach her at