Wabanaki art takes centre stage in Fredericton

The Petapan First Light Symposium is a celebration of Wabanaki art, with showcasing film, fashion, visual art and performance.

Over 200 Indigenous artists came to the N.B. capital to network and showcase work

George Paul, left, and Jeff Ward share a laugh outside of the Petapan First Light Symposium's film festival Friday. Ward is an actor and Paul is a vocal artist and story keeper. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

Hundreds of Indigenous artists made their way to Fredericton this week, to celebrate Wabanaki art, to network and to showcase their own talent at the Petapan First Light Symposium this weekend.

The conference is just what Indigenous artists needed, said Jeff Ward. 

"This is for the artist by the artist, and I think it's so important for us to share our stories," said Ward, 48.

He's L'nu, Mi'kmaw for person of the land, from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation and now lives in Membertou First Nation on Unama'ki (Cape Breton Island). Ward made the 643 km trip because he thinks networking and funding are still barriers for Indigenous artists but events like this can create pathways to meeting those shortfalls. 

Petapan is a major arts symposium opening today in Fredericton, and it features the work and performance of more than 150 Indigenous artists in Atlantic Canada.

Ward is an actor as well as the general manager at the heritage park in Membertou, where they sell authentic Indigenous crafts. 

"My day-to-day business is to work and promote art, and I need to see what's out there, and who's out there," said Ward. 

He attended the film festival part of the event Friday with his uncle George Paul. Ward said he was inspired by the films showcased and hopes Indigenous actors can be featured in big budget films in the future. 

Asha Bear is a filmmaker and student at the University of New Brunswick. She is also an entrepreneur and beaded the earrings she's wearing. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

One filmmaker who got to make her debut at the film festival is Asha Bear, who is Wolastoqew and Mi'kmaw from Neqotkuk First Nation in New Brunswick. Her film Indigenous Identity screened at the Friday event on St. Thomas University campus. 

The film is a personal story of Bear's and features her mother and sister as actors in the short film.

"It's about my journey with my Indigenous identity and what I went through," said Bear, 26. 

"My grandmother is a residential school survivor, so growing up I didn't really get much like culture or anything like that. It's just really about how I became who I am today, and embracing my Indigenous identity." 

Her grandmother was forced to attend the Shubenacadie residential school n Nova Scotia. Now, Bear is learning to dance sing and drum and runs a beading business.

Petapan runs June 9-12. Corrina Merasty, one of the organizers, is Cree from Mathais Colomb First Nation in northern Manitoba but has lived in the Wabanaki region for decades. She said the event is about learning from one another. 

About 30 vendors set up in downtown Fredericton to sell crafts. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

"We're all coming together as a real way to connect, to network, to celebrate and think about what we're going to do in the future," said Merasty, who is also the Indigenous arts outreach officer with ArtsNB. 

Events include a fashion show, art exhibits, medicine walks, an Indigenous vendors market and a film festival. Organizers covered the cost of travel, lodging and food for the artists. Merasty said the event cost close to $500,000 and was funded by the Canada Council through Mawi'Art: Wabanaki Artist Collective.

Corrina Merasty is an Indigenous arts outreach officer with ArtsNB and was on the planning committee for the Petapan First Light symposium. Merasty is also a filmmaker and actor. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

Merasty is an actor and filmmaker herself and said the arts are meaningful to her life. 

"I can't live without the arts." said Merasty.

"Arts has saved my life, to be honest with you. And that's what I try to spread." 

Vendors at the market sold Indigenous crafts, artwork and fabrics. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)


Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation. He is the Atlantic region reporter for CBC Indigenous. He is a proud father and you can follow his work @oggycane4lyfe