Content warning: mention of residential schools and systemic abuse
On Saturday, September 9, a benefit concert took place under the dim red lights of St. Laurent’s La Sala Rossa, enthralling the audience with performances by local and Indigenous bands. The concert raised funds for the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM), an organisation that provides First Nations, Inuit, and Métis women and children with food, shelter, clothing, advocacy services, and assistance in acquiring affordable housing. They aim to alleviate the strains that Indigenous women face today, which are entrenched in a colonial legacy of neglect and degradation that pervades this country. Canadian policies have, until only a few decades ago, tried to erase native cultures through the establishment and funding of abhorrent residential schools that forced native children to assimilate into settler society and sterilized innumerable native girls. In addition, these policies also denied voting rights until 1960 to native adults unless they were willing to give up their Indigenous status.
Although residential schools have been abolished and Indigenous people have been granted voting rights while retaining their treaty status, the issues facing Indigenous people do not end there. 36% of Indigenous women live in poverty and one-third of Indigenous adults do not attend high school. There is also a pitiful lack of attention paid to the thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; state officials pay merely performative attention through speeches and lagging bureaucratic procedures without any concrete progress in cracking existing cases or preventing more from occurring.
This inaction has led to the formation of many Indigenous activist-led organizations that step up to make change. Among these is the NWSM, with its executive director Nakuset spearheading the shelter’s efforts. In her speech at the start of the show, Nakuset mentioned the variety of services they offer to those that come to them, including providing food, clothing, shelter, as well as financial and legal aid, particularly when it comes to helping native women find stable incomes in order to maintain custody of their children.
Close to a hundred people came to the event eager to mingle, grab a drink, and welcome the first group, Odaya, who are a Montreal-based non-profit Indigenous arts collective. They are a song-and-drum ensemble composed of four women of mixed-Indigenous heritage. Their set alternated between traditionally inspired and experimental songs, filling the room with vibrant sounds and cheers. The group, which is also well known for its work in the Indigenous feminist community, made a point to focus their music upon such subjects as strong women, family, and healing rituals.
Next, a Montreal-based dream pop and 80s synth band, Sorry Girls, drew the crowd closer to the stage as the lead vocalist, Heather Foster Kirkpatrick, solemnly crooned over people grabbing drinks and whispering to one another, “What are they called? They’re so good!”
Afterwards was a performance by Métis artist Moe Clark, who wholly captured the audience’s attention with the unique narrative she weaved through her performance, which included traditional circle singing, spoken word poetry and vibrant instrumentals. She dedicated her set to Indigenous women: “It takes strength and courage to be an Indigenous woman and it is important to honor and keep in mind the women that we are still trying to find.” Songs like “Butterfly Ashes” and “Coyote” radiated vulnerable strength. As they performed, a projector flashed images of butterflies in flight behind them; Clark explained, “butterflies are so tiny yet they travel thousands and thousands of miles with those tiny little wings.”
A little later, groups of excited college-aged students rushed through the doors to the ticket counter, asking whether Venus had begun their set already. Once the “adult disco” band started playing its lively set, the crowd cheered, many seeing the performance as a time to drink and socialize.
Towards the end of the night, Blessings, an experimental rock, avant-garde trio graced the stage, taking the audience on an improvised train ride, conveyed by verbal and atmospheric cues. Along with the sprightly beat of the drums, the band provided visuals of landscapes: streets, trees, and birds-eye views of cities. The band’s modern energy ended the night on a high note, and long-time fans ran up to greet and praise them after the set.
The benefit concert was organized by McGill student Soraya Mamiche, who had also worked on another benefit show last year to raise funds to aid Syrian refugees. “I decided to hold my second benefit concert to help Indigenous people here in Montreal, especially women and children, the population most susceptible to domestic violence and poverty. They need our support, and I am very happy that there was so much interest in this event, and that we raised close to $2000 CAD. It shows that our community cares,” she expressed. In addition to the money raised, dozens of bags of clothes and other necessities were dropped off at the venue to be taken to the shelter.
Native women, tired of the settler complacency and inaction, have had to rely upon their own strength to protect and advocate for their rights. This benefit concert was one in which people were brought together by their love of song, dance, poetry, and most importantly, their solidarity with the native women’s community.
For more information on the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, please refer to their website. To donate: http://www.nwsm.info/donate/.