Alfredo Caxaj is a Mayan who headed into the bright snows of Eeyou Istchee, far from the jungles his ancestors came from. He traveled northwards to give workshops to the Crees about festivals and putting them on. I had a chance to sit down with Alfredo before he went into Eeyou Istchee. I found him to be an interesting person of strong convictions and confidence. I am sure that those who had a chance to meet Alfredo will always remember him.
The Nation: What do you plan to do in the Cree territory?
Alfredo Caxaj: My participation in these workshops is based on my own experiences as a funder and organizer of festivals in cultural activities in the London (Ontario) area. It’s also as someone who faced so many barriers to establish and start these programs in the community. We went from zero to a well-established and recognized festival across Canada. So I believe there are many opportunities out there for working with other presenters and festivals and communities.
I am in the position of sharing my experiences with the communities in the north. One of the possibilities is starting a network within the Cree communities as well.
You talked about cultural barriers, what kind have you experienced?
Well, I arrived in the community of London, Ontario, which is probably one of the most conservative cities across Canada.
Are you talking National Post conservative?
Yes, we have one of the most conservative universities in Canada called the University of Western Ontario, which has a reputation for business programs. You know the type of orientation these programs have. Cultural barrier is usually referred to when you have someone coming from a different country and trying to develop programs that were not
necessarily done by many of the other arts organizations that exist in that community. Alternative type of programs is what I mean. Basically instead of focusing on programs that could give some type of opportunity to artists in some other way with roots in other cultures. In doing that in a community like London wasn’t easy because there is always the misconception that any kind of art form coming from a different culture sometimes has the traditional mainstream art institutions and media not giving any merit to that new form. It wasn’t that easy to convince or demonstrate at first that this non-traditional form has powerful imagery or sounds or other art. It is a different artistic expression but of value also. That was a challenge connected to a cultural barrier. We had to open doors and create opportunities. Initially it was just local artists, but now we showcase artists at national and international levels. But this has been the result of many years of hard work.
To give you an example, one of the first times we tried to use one of the mainstream facilities in London it was difficult for the group to open their doors because these mainstream venues had been traditionally used by orchestras and grand theater pieces. So this made it difficult for them to accept a group with a different perspective, who wanted to present different kinds of activities and programs, and who wanted to use their facilities.
What we have been able to accomplish was structural changes in these institutions because now we are able to use these facilities without any problems. We made them change through opening their eyes and minds to something new and worthwhile that is happening in the community.
Now you’re traveling to Native communities. At times these communities could be seen as almost desperate for some type of activity to happen but in most cases don’t have the means to make it happen. It could be facilities, a lack of knowledge, experience or people with training or volunteers. How do you make something happen?
I think one of the main problems here is that these communities have been forgotten by some of the main art institutions in the country. I think the Canada Council has recognized that they haven’t been able to reach these communities in the proper way. The participation of someone such as myself who has come from such a different country with different cultural values and who has been able to establish these activities and programs could be an essential element. I’m not presenting myself as someone who knows how to do everything but I am willing to share my experiences and tins will give them an easier road. There have been many things I have discovered the hard way but it will be easier for those coming after me. I live in a community that is not isolated, certainly not as isolated as some of the Cree communities I have faced all the kinds of challenges these communities will have to face. I might be able to present a balanced perspective. While we are different communities and we are working in different environments, there is a chance for networking with many other groups. It would bring opportunities to learn and interact with other organizations and cultural activities across Canada.
What is the first thing you would tell someone who wants to start up a festival in their community?
These are not places where there are large population centers nearby to draw in a lot of people.
Well, one of the successes of our group in London is that we’ve been able to establish a mandate, an artistic vision and a goal of where we want to go. It’s exactly that, a process to start having a discussion about that. Where do they want to go and what is possible to achieve and accomplish. I believe the resources are there and it is just a matter of making the right links and connections. I truly believe there are many groups in this country quite interested and willing to support and work in conjunction with the Cree communities. Basically I’ll be telling them that these are the resources I’ve found and have been able to use. These resources can be used and it doesn’t matter what distance these communities are from the main urban centers. There are many groups who tour across the country and we may be able to bring these groups into the communities and establish the connections with the main urban centers. I would tell people that the resources are there and it’s really a matter of starting the process. The information that will be provided is information that is accessible concerning such organizations like granting agencies such as the Canada Council. The agency and others like it are actually quite eager and almost desperate in reaching out to these communities in the best possible way. This is a pilot project. We don’t want to come as someone who knows everything but we want to come with some ideas that hopefully they will be able to take and go from there.
There have been things that have worked well in isolated spots. Do you have any ideas to make something happen in the north? I would like to say I know these communities quite well and how they develop their activities and so on but I don’t. What I know is that there is an interest in these communities for interacting with many other groups. It’s quite possible to do the type of festival we have done in London and many other cities. It’s quite possible to do that and it could be incorporated into other activities. I know some places have financial resources but need to be able to connect with outside organizations and groups.
I would say that in these workshops I feel there is a tremendous opportunity for both to learn how we could complement each other and make it a reality that these activities and programs can happen.
Will you be giving advice on accessing funding for some of these activities?
Yes, as I have said a lot of this is based on my own experience and research and there is a tremendous potential for support that I’ll be sharing with people. There are many who are interested in reaching out to support the communities and there is potential for Cree artists to explore other possibilities outside of the their communities. Definitely yes. We feel we are bringing a lot of information North with us, essentially on areas of how to gain access to different sources of financial support as well as different networking connections and assistance across the country.
What do you hope to accomplish personally?
My main objective is to leave a legacy of sufficient interest within these communities to build and grow into these types of programs. I hope to share with them my ideas and I hope one day they realize what they want will happen. I don’t know what this is right now but it is my hope. I hope that people gain something from what we have done. When I was approached to do this I said that this is my own experience and if my experience can be useful for these communities I will be more than happy to go and do what I believe can be accomplished.