Festival missing the boat when it comes to diversity, music group says

The chair of a local music organization says the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival needs to become more diverse, and could start by acknowledging the sport's Chinese roots.

Girls+ Rock chair says Ottawa festival could start by better acknowledging Chinese roots

Teams from all over the world compete at the annual Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival at Mooney's Bay in June. (Dale/Ottawa Dragonboat Festival)

The chair of a local music organization says the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival needs to become more diverse, and could start by acknowledging the sport's Chinese roots.

Tiffanie Tri, who chairs the board of Girls+ Rock Ottawa, said the annual festival receives significant government funding, but does little to promote Chinese culture.

"We'd like to see the festival properly pay homage and contextualize the culture from which it's benefiting," Tri told CBC Radio's All In a Day.

Dragon boat racing traces its roots back more than 2,000 years to southern China, where it was a tradition to mark the summer solstice, according to the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival Society.

The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival offers free concerts as part of its programming, which also includes dragon boat races on the Rideau River at Mooney's Bay. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Bagpipes, lion dancers

Girls+ Rock Ottawa, which runs programs teaching female-identifying, non-binary and gender non-conforming people how to play music, recently aired its frustrations with the dragon boat festival online.

Tri said last year, 61 per cent of the festival's music acts were all-male bands, and there was one musician with an Asian background.

"The opening ceremonies will have bagpipes, followed by Chinese lion dancers," said Tri, whose own family has Chinese roots. "Would you ever have something like the highland games start off with Chinese lion dancers and bagpipes?" 

Tri believes the issue goes far beyond mere optics.

"There's actually repercussions from some of the programming decisions and activities at the festival that are actually harming the culture that it's supposed to be celebrating," she said.

Why an Ottawa music group is accusing the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival of 'missing the boat' when it comes to this year's music lineup. 13:55

Tri said her organization tried contacting the festival through an online form before writing the post, and still hasn't received a response from the festival.

"We were hoping maybe they would take that into account for this year," she said.

Tri said there are no musicians of Asian heritage in the June 20-23 festival, and two-thirds of the bands are men-only.

"The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival does good things, but we need to make sure that it's doing good for everyone and the culture it's supposed to be celebrating is not rewritten or erased."

Girls+ Rock Ottawa blacked out the names of all-male acts in this year's lineup to demonstrate how few of them include female musicians. (Girls+ Rock Ottawa)

Representation key

Girls+ Rock Ottawa pointed out that 150 music festivals around the world, including several in Canada, have pledged to book gender-equal lineups by 2022 — but no festivals in Ottawa are on that list.

"We know that when people don't see themselves reflected in culture they don't participate in it, and not just that: they don't feel significant in society," she said.

For her, diversifying musical acts will help build more engaged audiences.

"It's going to increase people that are coming out to consume live music and then we're actually going to create a more vibrant and sustainable music scene in Ottawa."

Festival says it's trying

A member of the festival's board said it's important for people to hold it accountable when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.

We're definitely committed to diversity and inclusivity.- Craig Stewart, Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival

Craig Stewart, the volunteer chair of the festival's board of directors, said organizers want to reflect the audience by booking diverse acts including Indigenous, queer and francophone bands.

"I joined the board about five or six years ago and now I can comprehend the difficulty of putting on a festival and understanding the granting process," he said.

"With any artistic programming there's lots of factors: budgeting, availability of artists, negotiations," he said. "We're definitely committed to diversity and inclusivity."

Stewart said the festival has developed a new diversity and inclusivity policy, and pointed out six of the nine acts who played at the Ice Dragon Boat Festival during Winterlude featured female musicians.

With files from CBC Radio's All In a Day


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