Mayworks festivals to celebrate working-class arts and culture

Annual celebrations of working-class arts and culture in Halifax, Toronto, and Winnipeg will go ahead next month. But the ongoing pandemic means most events and activities will take place online.

“We’ve planned events all along where we had contingency plans,” said Sébastien Labelle, festival director of Mayworks Kjipuktuk/Halifax.

While organizers are hoping to have in-person participation at some events, social distancing and mask-wearing will be mandatory. “In all cases, we’re certainly adhering to public health guidelines,” he said.

Held since 2009, the mission of Mayworks Kjipuktuk/Halifax is “to celebrate and to embody, through artistic means, the spirit of solidarity that has infused, and continues to infuse, May Day,” Labelle said.

One of the key events this year is a concert marking the 25th anniversary of the 1996 occupation of a Canada Employment Centre by employees and supporters.

“Here on Gottingen Street, women primarily from the African Nova Scotian community occupied 24/7, for 122 days, the employment centre, their workplace, to prevent its closure because of what it meant to the community,” Labelle said. “That’s a super-important story that has very little general public recognition, so to highlight it in this way is very exciting and important.”

The pandemic may have focused people’s attention on other issues, but the need for Mayworks remains, Labelle said.

“There’s a pandemic, but racism hasn’t stopped, capitalism hasn’t stopped, patriarchy hasn’t stopped, and neither have struggles to overcome those,” he said. “And artists haven’t stopped creating or having a desire to reach audiences in whatever means are available to them.”

Those sentiments are echoed by organizers of Toronto’s Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, which is entering its 36th year.

While the festival is constantly evolving, it remains focused on “recognizing the role of art in the labour movement and the lives of working-class people,” board member Pamela Arancibia said. “(Mayworks) came out of the labour movement in Toronto and the unions continue to sponsor so many of our events,” she said.

In recent years, greater attention has been paid to establishing direct and meaningful connections between unions and artists.

“We want these relationships to be meaningful so it’s not just tokenizing,” Arancibia said. “We want to do it in a sustained way over time.”

While the arts remain at the core of Mayworks, this year’s Toronto festival will feature some non-arts programming related to the pandemic.

“For example, on May Day, which is the first day of the festival, we are having (a dialogue) on essential workers,” she said. “It’s not arts-focused, but despite that we felt, given what we’re seeing happening in Ontario at this particular moment, it is absolutely important.”

Toronto organizers had originally considered holding porch concerts and other outside events, but have since decided to go online-only.

Arancibia said Mayworks festivals across the country need to ensure art programming is political and “rooted in the left.”

“I think it’s easy to give in to a liberal way of doing arts, a very neoliberal way of looking at arts,” she said. “Yes, we are dependent on funding. But we are here to provide an alternative to the liberal way of looking at arts.”

There doesn’t appear to be any danger of creeping liberalism at Winnipeg’s Mayworks Festival of Labour & the Arts.

“It’s all about workers and the conditions that workers struggle with,” vice-president Derek Black said about the event, which began in 1994 as part of the 75th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. “Mayworks here has always been funded primarily by organized labour.”

The Winnipeg festival will be held completely online and will feature a type of musical performance that was once a staple of leftist culture.

“It started as a concept in my head of doing an old-fashioned hootenanny,” Black said of the May Day Hootenanny. “And when (folk musician and activist) Anne Feeney passed away, I thought it was a good opportunity to turn it into a celebration of her life.”

“I think everything that we create, whether it’s music or theatre, it’s all important,” he said of the festival’s working-class programming. “If one person (ends up) with a change of heart or a new perspective, you never know where that’s all going to lead.”

(Image: Toronto Mayworks poster by Pardis Pahlavanlu)