Kalamazoo's Canadiana Fest has more layers than poutine

There's going to be more than beer, poutine, and the music of Rush at the first Canadiana Fest, organizer Channon Mondoux says.

It's the first of its kind — a festival in the US devoted to its northern neighbors. The festival takes place Saturday, Oct. 7 at Arcadia Creek Festival Place.

"There are so many layers" to the festival, says Mondoux. "There's the superficial layer of beer, poutine, music, fun.... then there's another layer where we're trying to reach people and educate them. Then there's a third layer which is the intention underneath all of it." 

Then there's another layer under it all, "the stuff we don't talk about," she says.

First layer: Fries, cheese, gravy, beer and Rush

The festival organizers can expect to serve, "on the conservative side, about 4,500 units of alcohol," Eric Gillish, executive chef for Millennium Restaurant Group announces at a meeting of the Canuck Club at Final Gravity. The club also serves as a meeting for organizers and volunteers of Canadiana.

"The ideal would be able to sell three alcoholic beverages to every eligible drinking person," Chef Michael Murray says. 

Beverages will be mostly Canadian, from Molson to the fine wines of the Niagara region. Local brews will come from Final Gravity.

Poutine will be celebrated with the "World Champine Poutine Competition." Chefs from Kalamazoo to South America will put their spins on the simple combination of fries, cheese, and gravy. 

But Canadian food culture is more than French-fry-based. Murray says he's spent a lot of time eating in Canada, and Montreal has some of the finest restaurants on the continent, he believes. The country has rich European and French influences, with a strong Indigenous food culture, and vendors will reflect that. 

Chicago band Tom Sawyer, A Tribute to Rush, will close the night with the pure Canadian rock of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart. Earlier, the Canadian troubadour who gave Michigan "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" will be celebrated by The Gordon Lightfoot Tribute.

Canadiana Fest will begin with an opening parade of bagpipes. The Kalamazoo Pipe Band will represent the country's strong ties to the UK. But the true sounds of the land — of both Canada and Michigan — will come from the Southern Straight Singers of the Potawatomi band.

Center Stage Theatre actors will wander the festival as people from Canadian history. Attendees can participate in the "Great Canadian Cosplay Contest" -- dress as Bob and Doug McKenzie, Bubbles of  "Trailer Park Boys,” Stompin' Tom Connors, or any Canadian character/celeb for a chance to win a trip to Windsor to see Howie Mandel.

Next layers: two countries, many cultures

Mondoux is also a chef and an event organizer. She's put together events large and small for the past 30 years, but this festival is her largest. 

"This is a much bigger endeavor because it involves two countries, several dignitaries, thousands more people," she says. 

Mondoux says the fest is "breaking the ice of how people can look at what a festival really is." 

There's beer, food, and music, plus "a children's reading area in three languages," languages of the English, French, and Indigenous people of Canada. The opening ceremony will also be delivered in three languages. 

"And, how many people have gone to the extent of having consulate generals coming from other nations, for a beer festival!" The Canadian Consulate will be on hand to answer questions about the country.

There will be demonstrations of northern sports. The Kalamazoo Curling Club will bring their own rink, and Kalamazoo Central/Loy Norrix lacrosse team Kalamazoo United will be there with coach DJ Hughes. 

Mondoux hopes to have local hockey players, but who that might be is TBA. 

"The thing that I'm most excited about are the young people who are coming out to participate in this event. That they are excited about the idea of a festival of Canada, my home," Mondoux says.

"This is my way of saying thank you to Canada," she says. "Not just a, oh, it was nice living there." 

She came from "an incredibly impoverished home. I lived under the worst possible kinds of abuse for most of my life. It was the people of Canada who invested in my well-being," through health care, education, and financial support. "I've been on my own since I was 15 years old. Without those social programs, I honestly and truly believe I would not be here today."

Mondoux thinks of her mother, stigmatized as an "unwed mother" in the 1960s, walking from the hospital with her new baby to a one-room apartment with one piece of furniture. It was "a dresser, and my crib was the bottom drawer."

"It's also a thank you to my community," Kalamazoo, "because I love being here."

Last layer, all the stuff we don't talk about

Jax Anger-Pipe, the festival's diversity/equity/inclusion officer, works every day, through her company Tyler Technologies, with people from Canada.

"Canada, to me, is America but nicer. It's all the things that I like about America but in a place that's colder. I think being cold like that slows your thinking down, slows you down, and really makes you appreciate things." 

She sees Canada from an Indigenous perspective. Growing up in the Native American community in the Mount Pleasant area, during long northern Michigan winters, "It was always something very sacred to be with your family, to be with your friends and appreciate that. Learn to take care of the environment, take care of your country, and take care of each other."

After the meeting, with some Final Gravity stout and pizza on hand, Mondoux and Anger-Pipe discussed the cultures and shared histories of the two countries, both good and bad.

"Canada is by no means perfect," Mondoux says. She brings up Orange Shirt Day, coming up Sept. 30, a Canadian effort to remember and find some reconciliation over the suffering and deaths that occurred in Indian residential schools. In recent years, many unmarked graves have been discovered on the old school grounds. 

"Close to 10,000 bodies were found, and they were children... They're babies!' Anger-Pipe said with passion. 

Not just in Canada: "Even from Mount Pleasant, where I'm from, they found over 220 bodies."

Mondoux says she hopes the festival inspires "what Jax and I are trying to talk about right now," a discussion of culture and shared histories, not all pleasant, to "talk about through love and that mutual intention of healing. Because if we can't start to heal, we are never going to get over this." 

"Canada was French before it was English, before it was Canadian," Anger-Pipe says. This created  "a very different dynamic" than here in the US. 

But Michigan's history is similar, "We got the French-Canadian fur traders, we got the Indigenous people, we got the Redcoats coming in, and then we got the American soldiers coming in after that," she says.

Mondoux mentions George Washington's warning that Canada, in his time as President, known as  British North America, could long be a threat to the US. 

Of course, that's back when, as the War of 1812 showed, the land up north was under the control of the Crown, still sore after the Revolution.

Things are friendlier now, yes?

Mondoux says she's had a few encounters on the internet and face-to-face with people "who did get their back up, like 'how dare you bring this Canadian event when here we are in the United States!' Wait a minute — we can celebrate Greek Fest and we can do Irish Fest and Hispanic.... Why can't you do Canadiana Fest?"
She says, "They don't see it as another culture, they see it almost as if it's an invasion."

Mondoux suspects that "they are interpreting Canadian politics from an American viewpoint... they don't understand the culture, they don't have perspective." 

But "ninety-nine point nine percent" of the Kalamazoo community has shown her a positive reaction to the festival.

"We need to laugh. We need to shake off the burden that we've been carrying since the pandemic," she says.

Here in Michigan, after a long shared history of porous borders and fluid culture, Mondoux has a message for those who might be anxious about Canadians: "Dude, we're all around you!"

Canadiana Fest Music Lineup

Music is the heartbeat of the Canadiana Fest, says Mondoux. Here is a list of festival performers:

The Kalamazoo Pipe Band will be leading the opening ceremonies with their bagpipes, and they will be joined by the Southern Straight Singers with their First Nations drumming and singing. 

The Southern Straight Singers, Potawatomi, will provide music.

Mike Fornes, will be portraying Gordon Lightfoot onstage with the Gordon Lightfoot Tribute Band. The Gibson B-45 12-string and Martin D-18 guitars that Mr. Fornes uses in concert are identical to the ones played by Gordon Lightfoot on stage (not to mention his Gibson is made right here in Kalamazoo!).

Toronto native and jazz saxophonist and twice Juno Award nominated (Canadian version of the Grammy) Andrew Rathbun is widely esteemed as one of the most creative and accomplished saxophonists, composers and bandleaders of his generation. He is also an associate professor of saxophone and jazz studies at Kalamazoo’s own Western Michigan University!

The Henpecked Dawgs bring to life the early Canadiana sound of the French and Celtic Canadian population. A local quartet, Charlie Holleman, Richard Koontz, Leigh Fryling and Jenni Leckrone play everything from guitars, ukuleles, bagpipes, and the bodhran drum to mandolins, spoons, bones, tin whistles, small pipes, and flutes. Their stunning four-part vocal harmonies will delight your ears and bring you to your feet. 

Tom Sawyer, A Tribute to Rush hails from Chicagoland. They are a power trio that emphasizes the progressive rock era from 1974-1981. These are the sounds that created the bedrock for Rush’s iconic 40+ year career. If you want to hear what Canada’s own Rush sounded like in their prime, come check out Tom Sawyer.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.