Everyone knows that if you’re not into the politics or personalities, the annual conference of Canada’s chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations can be deadly boring. You meet a lot of people in hallways or grabbing a smoke-filled “health break” who will admit they aren’t there for the meetings but for the chance to run into old friends, to drop off business cards at the trade fair, or to take in the entertainment. It might be business inside, but outside it’s like a powwow without the drumming.

This year’s AFN conference might have had a bit more attention than the last because it was also an election year. Four women were gunning for the top job of national chief. Even so, there were a lot of people who couldn’t wait to head out and take in the entertainment. Since you’ve probably read all about the political stuff, let’s take you on a tour of this other – much more fun – side of the AFN conference.

Just across the street from AFN’s conference at the Toronto Metro Convention Centre, there’s an old railway roundhouse. It’s been transformed into the Steam Whistle Brewery. Inside a back entrance is a large space that’s been turned into an art exhibit. It houses one of the most extensive collections of paintings by Norval Morriseau outside of the National Gallery of Canada.

Jessica Wilson is the curator. She’s with a Toronto company called Westerkirk Works of Art. She spent months tracking contact after contact, from company to individual, looking for Morriseau paintings.

“It’s amazing when you go from his early works to his later paintings,” she says, motioning with a nod toward the collection. “You realize that he would sometimes paint on anything that happened to be handy. For instance,” she moves to one wall, “this isn’t painted on canvas. He picked up an old cardboard poster, turned it over, and painted on that. ”

Moving further along, Wilson notes, “This painting is on brown paper. He didn’t always have canvas so he used whatever was available.”

Robert Houle is a well-known Cree painter from Manitoba who teaches painting at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Of Morriseau, Houle commented, “He was one of the first to take our teachings and his visions and put them into his paintings. He was criticized for doing that, even by his own Elders. There was a lot of denial about our culture. But he painted anyway.” Houle then gestures at the paintings in front of him. “He created something original and but also very old.”

Grand Chief Stan Beardy of Treaty praised the work of the Curator, Jessica Wilson, and was gratified by the support that made the exhibit possible. “It was time people saw these paintings,” he said.

The exhibit was sponsored by the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, Chiefs of Ontario, the Royal Bank and TD Bank, among others. The exhibit would go on tour to northern Ontario after the AFN conference.

There was also music, food and theatre. It began at World Café at Harbourfront Centre with Chef David Wolfman providing a meal of venison and maple-glazed chicken before singer-songwriter, Crystal Shawanda, blues guitarist Derek Miller and others rocked evening away into the night next door at the WestJet Stage.

On the final evening of the AFN conference, over at the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, Herbie Barnes directed his play, “Sovereign Alliances.” The play is about the First Nations who fought in and are credited with winning the War of 1812 against invading American forces, for the British colony that would later become Canada.

According to Barnes, “the play had an enthusiastic response” even though the AFN conference ended early and many ticket buyers had to leave for home earlier than expected. “But there’s good news, too,” Barnes adds. His production received an additional grant to modify it into a touring show so that it will have a life beyond its limited run.

We might get to see it after all, if the play comes to a theatre near you.