Mariposa minority report

There was a rainbow over the Mariposa Folk Festival site, as the grand old dame celebrated her 50th anniversary last weekend in Orillia, Ontario.


But some metropolitan festival-goers quietly wondered if the crowd reflected the many colours displayed in the sky above.

Certainly, for those used to Canada’s urban multi-cultural population, the audience in Orillia probably looks a little pale.

The festival that introduced Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan and Bruce Cockburn, and featured Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young among others, takes place in a small town in Central Ontario that remains mostly “white”. So it’s natural enough that the audience looks that way at first glance.


A second glance is more revealing. This reporter enjoyed Mariposa moments with people of all colours and creeds: some singing on stage, some slinging suds, some serving fine food. Others sold crafts, ran the sound boards, or put their shoulders to the wheel among the hundreds of volunteers that make the festival such a fine experience.

Then there’s the deeper look. Back in 1961, a folk festival like Mariposa was counter-cultural by its very definition, simply because it paid attention to our own folk traditions. Later, the festival began bringing in acts who could perform and teach songs, arts, crafts and lifeways from traditions that spanned the globe. Mariposa gave many African-American blues legends their first Canadian gigs, had a historical focus on Aboriginal traditions, and deliberately sought to promote Francophone, regional and global acts over the years, often in the workshop settings pioneered by the late Estelle Klein, a formidable multi-culturalist.

This was one of Mariposa’s greatest contributions to Canadian culture, at a time when “we” still tended to look to our British and French colonial backgrounds for our sense of ourselves. It’s important to remember that in 1961, in many places in Canada, “white” Catholics and Protestants, English and French didn’t break bread together. Irish, Italians, Ukrainians and Jews, let alone Chinese, Indian, Black and Native people (to give only a few examples) often had to fight for any recognition whatsoever.


Not to mention that the founders of the festival – some of whom were on site this past weekend – themselves represented diversity in key ways. Many Jewish Canadians, for example, helped put Mariposa together at a time when the fact of their faith made them decidedly “different” in mainstream Canada. And that’s saying nothing of the diversity of political, artistic and spiritual lifestyles always represented on the festival scene.

I know what it’s like to feel surprised by the “whiteness” of a place; I love living in downtown Toronto and always find it momentarily jarring to go to a community that is less visibly diverse. But when I think about diversity at an event like Mariposa, in its rural location with its particular focus on folk, I ask:

1) over and above the obvious, does the audience represent a diversity of people?
2) is the festival an alternative to the mainstream, mass-market entertainment options?
3) would a greater diversity of people be welcomed there by the existing audience?
4) would people from other walks of life FEEL welcome there?

I believe the answer to the first three questions is an unequivocal “yes”. And I sincerely hope the same is true for question four.

Certainly more outreach can always be done. The first and most obvious way to attract a more diverse audience is to program diverse acts. Mariposa has always done that, and acts from around the world, performing in multiple languages and representing a variety of traditions were once again on hand, at Mariposa’s 50th birthday bash – from the The M├ętis Fiddler Quartet to Alejandra Ribera, Les Tireaux des Roches to Lizzy Mahashe and many more.

True, Sunday evening’s alumni concert featuring the Whiteley Brothers, Murray McLauchlan, Sylvia Tyson, Ian Tyson, Greg Keelor & Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, and legendary local boy Gordon Lightfoot was pretty “mainstream” by today’s standards. But those standards exist in part because the festival and others like it have done their work well! Most of those performers learned their chops in a time when folk music, and especially Canadian-made material were more marginal than mainstream. The fact they’re all household names today is a credit to Mariposa’s embracing vision.


There is one way Mariposa might acknowledge the diversity at its core with greater emphasis. The site of the festival (the Atherly Narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching), has been an important gathering place for First Nations people for at least 4,500 years. The Mnjikaning Fish Weirs National Historic Site has deep cultural and historical significance for First Nations people, particularly the Chippewas of Rama who live nearby.

Native presence is an important factor among the community groups represented at the festival. Not to mention that the Sunday evening show was sponsored by Casino Rama. And to her credit, Sunday mainstage host Shelagh Rogers thanked the Chippewa First Nation and mentioned the significance of the site as a traditional gathering place.

It would be wonderful to see symbolic acknowledgment of that sacred connection with the grounds more boldly displayed at Mariposa. And it would be fitting, for this marvelous event that has done so much to promote diversity, understanding, ecology, and tolerance while supporting great Canadian entertainment for the past 50 years.

Here’s to the next fifty! The rainbow at the hundredth birthday celebrations is bound to be another beauty.

In fact if you look carefully at this year’s rainbow, I think you can see the spirit of the century, hovering in the sky above.


David Newland is a member of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals Board of Directors, founder and volunteer contributor to and was honoured to be a guest of the Mariposa Folk Festival.

5 comments on “Mariposa minority report

  1. steve pritchard

    July 13, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Hi David… Interesting piece. I saw exactly the same
    thing,, only I expected it… Folk music as we know it
    is “White music,, mostly played by white musicians,,the
    audience for the music is “white”. I’ve been going to
    festivals for about 40 years, its always been that way
    I have been part of organizing folk clubs for about 20
    years… We tried to change the norm,, by bringing
    ethnic acts,, we even tried some blues acts… It drew
    an audience,, and they were “white” almost to a man or
    women… Funny thing a bunch of years back I was at a
    folk symposium of some sort and James Keelaghan came
    to the same conclusion,,,, by the way there is nothing
    wrong with having our own music anyway,, there is no
    shame in it. In addition,, Canadians,, unlike Americans
    seem to segmentize their music,, based on their ethnic
    roots.. Personally I would love to see a broader
    audience for our music,, but even bringing in World
    Music acts has not brought in a more ethmic audience
    mix…. anyway,,, continue stirring the pot..
    take care,, Steve Pritchard CIUT radio.

  2. Well spoken David! I do hope that the festival organizers will take your comments to heart! Kathy

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    I love what folk festivals have done, and do, for this country’s many cultures, and Mariposa’s among the greats.

    In many ways Canada’s great mosaic is being rearranged all the time, a process that can be magical.

    I felt this moment in a time and place was a portrait – one that included many more colours and shades than may have met a few folks’ eyes.

  4. Good morning David,
    nice article. I have lived through some of the turmoil roused by perceived exclusion. Sometimes there is no exclusion by individuals, but rather systemic. For example, the competition for attention. If I have a certain number of hours of recreation time (including the arts) I will direct my attention to my areas of interest. This alone can segment the population by lines of gender, age, and ethnicity.
    Another exclusion factor is newness to Canada. Immigrants, from any country, are often at the bottom of the income tree. They do not have large amounts of disposable income to spend on festivals, or folk clubs. Look at the numbers, a large portion of our country is now first and second generation immigrants (again, from a diversity of countries).
    I am sure festivals are asking for a culturally diverse representation on their boards of directors. Not because of a quota system, but because that is the present makeup of our country, and thus the natural spread of available and qualified candidates. This may, or may not, have an effect on the perceived lack of “visible minorities”. It will be enjoyable to witness if changes do occur in the next few decades.

  5. Some excellent points David. I certainly agree that diversity in several areas is the key to a successful and indeed “welcoming” festival. Additionally, festivals have to evolve and require similiar elements to do so. I also agree that a multi-cultural or world music component does not necessarily bring in a more diverse audience however it does allow the festival-goers to experience a wider variety of music. In Lunenburg we do our best to provide a wide range of musical styles while maintaining a traditional music component. Though I must admit it has been a challenge. This year marks my first Mariposa experience and overall it was very positive. Looking forward to future festivals. Russell Easy, Program Chair/Board Director, Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival

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