Edmonton’s Chinook Series: An Exploration of Community, Collaboration, and Warmth

by Erica Osko

When I first heard of the Chinook Series Kickoff, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The event is advertised as a curated international art series that is an exciting and innovative collaboration between five Edmonton production companies: Azimuth Theatre, Fringe Theatre, Workshop West Playwrites’ Theatre, SOUND OFF: A Deaf Theatre Festival, and Black Arts Matter. The Kickoff’s press release stated that the series features “dynamic, daring, and cutting edge artists,” which sounded exciting, but I couldn’t help but walk through the frigid Edmonton cold towards the ATB Arts Barn with some trepidation. 

After reading all the flashy buzzwords, I was surprised when the Chinook Kickoff began slowly and serenely with an Indigenous smudging ceremony. However, the attitude of attentiveness and togetherness the ceremony created set an important tone for the entire evening. From that first act, it was clear that the Chinook Series is about interpersonal and intercultural connection and collaboration. During the Treaty dedication – the acknowledgement that Edmonton is located on traditional Treaty 6 territory – Hunter Cardinal, Indigenous actor and Associate Director of Fringe Theatre reminded all present that the gifts of joy, community, and listening are at the core of the festival. “The breadth and experience that we will share tonight, and in the future, grounds and connects us as family,” he said.

Though the idea of five parallel festivals (one for each of the production companies) initially sounded chaotic, it made sense once I understood the familial atmosphere and intent of the Chinook Series. The series “is like the embodiment of collaboration!” said Nasra Adem, the director of Black Arts Matter, or BAM!. Nasra helped to found BAM!, a multidisciplinary company focused on bringing Black artists into the spotlight of Edmonton’s art scene, in response to the issues she faced where Black artists were excluded from Edmonton’s “mainstream” artistic culture. “BAM! [was] a response to the comments I was getting over and over again that Black artists just aren’t in Edmonton, or that we don’t exist, or that we’re just not ‘up to par,’” says Adem with a laugh. “I know that’s completely a lie [that Edmonton has no Black artists], ‘cause I was just with them like five minutes ago.” Nasra certainly has reason to be proud. “We bring all the African people! BAM! Brings the melanin,” she exclaims joyously.

BAM team and Melafrique

One of the highlights of the The Chinook Series Kickoff was the group featured MelAfrique of BAM!, who played playing Afro-fusion music that warmed my soul. They were accompanied by Deaf artists from the company SOUND OFF, who interpreted the music in American Sign Language, a collaboration which expanded the performance in a totally unexpected way. The interpreters were not merely imitating the words, but transmitting the soul and spirit of the music. They were not only translating for Deaf audience members, but were contributing their own unique depth and vibrancy to MelAfrique’s impassioned beats and lyrics, demonstrating the rich artistic experience that collaboration can create.

Nasra reflected that the art world particularly is being called to reflect on what their relationships mean, and how they can contribute to reconciliation in all aspects of life. Chinook artists are working hard to address this issue by including as many diverse voices as they can. The Chinook Series is providing a new platform for BAM! artists to collaborate with the broader artistic community and showcase their work to new audiences, thus exposing some abounding Edmontonian talent that has previously been under appreciated. The result is a collection of art that has something everyone can relate to. Nasra said, “we’re really trying to build a family that’s trying to understand each other and hopefully help the community understand each other better as well.”

© Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

To Hunter Cardinal, this relationship of reconciliation is a Treaty relationship. He explained that a Treaty “is an opportunity for indigenous and non-indigenous people to acknowledge their sacred relationship to each other…when the Treaties were created, from the Indigenous perspective, it was known as an adoption ceremony, a kinship ceremony. We became relatives.” Edmontonians have become used to beginning gatherings with the Treaty 6 dedication to engage in a principle of friendship and understanding. It is the spirit of this Treaty relationship that the Chinook Series is built on. The relationships between artists–Indigenous, Black, Deaf, and more–have created a rich cultural experience for all.

Warm and revitalized, I left the aptly named Chinook kickoff with an overwhelming sense of community. Hunter explained to me that for Indigenous people, winter is a traditional season of sharing stories. “I’m really excited as an Indigenous person seeing Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, living in the echoes of that tradition, and gathering together…telling meaningful stories,” said Hunter, with a smile. I can’t help but agree.

You can warm up with the Chinook Series Feb 8-18, 2018. Visit chinookseries.ca for details.

Banner photo and first body photo courtesy of the Chinook Series.

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