May 2-4 2020

(as originally published via CultKW)

A statue in front of a building

Description automatically generated
photo courtesy of Cambridge photographer Vanessa Pejovic.

I am writing to you from what has been my perch, my coop for more than nine weeks now: from my apartment on the third floor of an industrial heritage building in the original part of downtown Kitchener.  

That’s the part of the city that goes back to when Kitchener was still Berlin, Canada; when Queen Victoria was on her throne, and when the sun never set on her domains. 

I hope your Victoria Day weekend was a joyous one.  

Victoria’s actual birthday – her 201st – is this Sunday, so this celebration opportunity is still open. 

Monday was damp and gloomy, so I have a mind to go up the street to her statue in her park and pay my respects later in the week, in a solitary, silent and properly masked for the pandemic kind of way.  

I love Victoria Day for all its quaint peculiarities. In her time, she was a global presence (check out this Wikipedia list of statues of her imperial majesty in locations worldwide). Today, Canada is the only place where Victoria and her long, long reign are still celebrated with a statutory holiday.  

Even though it has become an almost meaningless vestige of a time gone by, Victoria Day in Canada is part of what makes us distinct.  

It is worth noting, especially since it is THEMUSEUM that is hosting these musings, that this holiday Monday that just went by was also International Museum Day.  
The theme this year was “Museum for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”.   

That Victorian Empire of old is not something we associate with equality; that’s a specialty of revolutionary France. In terms of diversity and broad inclusion, however, there has never been a political configuration that comes close to matching the cultural breadth and variety of that vast global empire we were once part of.  

The museum connection brings to mind the Record column I wrote for Victoria Day last year, which included a mention of a small exhibit dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria at the Fashion History Museum in Hespeler, Cambridge. 

The “Victoria 200” exhibit included one of Victoria’s personal garments — a linen chemise — on loan from the Jordan Historical Museum of the Twenty in the Town of Lincoln, out in Niagara. 

This year, of course, the Fashion History Museum and every other museum, gallery, theatre, concert hall, community art centre and library are shut tight. 

Writing as an arts advocate, I have to say something about how grave the current situation has become for organizations like the Fashion History Museum, and for people working in culture-related endeavours of all kinds. 

Things look worse with every passing day. We can no longer just hope for the best and wait for things to return to some semblance of normal. 

This is where another aspect of what Victoria Day signifies comes into the picture: May 2-4 in these parts is the culmination of a long arc of spring observances, from Groundhog Day to the vernal equinox through Earth Day, Arbour Week, Easter, May Day, Mothers Day, to now, when we can finally plant without fear of frost and begin the turn towards summer. 

More than any other time of the year, this is the season to honour and to treasure our earthly home. 

When we consider the future of museums, galleries, archives, libraries, and conservatories, and think about how music, theatre, dance, literary, visual arts, and media, new and old, will evolve, what we’re really thinking about is the future of work.  

And any way you look at it, in 2020 the future of work means finding ways to do things for one another in more sustainable ways — all 8 billion of us alive today around this globe where the sun is always rising and always setting.  

We’ve reached the point where the ecological balance sheet is of far greater consequence than anything that can be measured in terms of dollars and cents.  

My Victoria Day 2020 wish is that we take advantage of this break from the normal and use the time to work on updating our conception of what prosperity means.  

My sense is, if culture-related work, culture-related exchange, the immeasurable value of arts-related production, and the ever-increasing riches of our shared cultural inheritance are not at the very centre of an evolved conception of true prosperity, the future starts to look hopeless and impoverished. 

Oktoberfest in May

The May Day signal went out in March: Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest is facing a serious crisis.

There is talk of major changes in the works, aimed, as Oktoberfest Executive Director Alfred Lowrick has said, towards making it “a more family-friendly festival that celebrates the region’s Germanic roots while better reflecting the diversity that’s come to represent the area.”

That sounds reasonable. The best approach, when dealing with a time-honoured entity like this, is one that is progressive, but also conservative:

Protect and preserve, but also adapt. Renovate as needed; build anew where it makes sense to do so, but always build on what exists.

Taking steps to better reflect this region’s diversity is sound advice. The fact is, our diversity can be traced to those German roots: We are the only major Canadian settler city area whose founding tradition is neither anglophone nor francophone.

Thanks to those German language roots, we have reasonable claim to be the birthplace and capital of allophone Canada. And a 21st century Grand River Country Oktoberfest can play a leading role in making such a claim.

To that end, here are nine points of advice:

Keep the German language and culture foremost, but broaden it to encompass the German-speaking world in the 21st century, both in the homelands — Germany, Austria, Switzerland — and throughout the diaspora.

It could even be all Germanic languages, including what anglophones call “Dutch”, which is my native tongue. And if we go that far, we might as well go all the way and make it allophone Canada in all its diversity.

Keep the role of the German clubs central — Concordia, Schwaben, Transylvania, Alpine, Hubertus Haus. A smart move would be to invite involvement from other cultural associations, especially those that own and operate their own places and spaces. There are dozens of them. All of them face challenges. They’re better off working together.

Keep the beer, the sausages and the sauerkraut. It’s high time, though, to move beyond the domestic beer duopoly and towards artisanal and legacy brewing, especially independent production here in Grand River country, but also the beers of the whole wide world.

That goes for artistry and tradition in fermenting and preserving as well. If local Koreans came forward to share the kimchi tradition, it wouldn’t diminish celebrating sauerkraut in any way. The enjoyment of bratwurst and frankfurter würstchen is fully compatible with an appreciation of chorizo, boerwors, sujuk, makanek, longganisa, sai oua, or alheira.

In a similar vein, strengthen the polka component, but complement it with offerings from comparable popular dance traditions from around the globe: rumba, flamenco, dabke, square, line, swing, jig, shuffle, … .

Say it’s the Levant group, representing people from the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Kurdistan area, that steps forward to bring Dabke dance into Oktoberfest. Some polka people might take it up, but they can also stick to pure polka if that’s what they prefer.

Keep the harvest theme, but deepen the meaning to include celebrating

  • the Waterloo County food tradition;
  • holding the line to protect the farmlands of Greater Waterloo, and
  • giving thanks for the beauty and bounty of our earthly home.

Keep the downtown Kitchener base, but aim towards a festival that manifests an ascendant spirit of “Berlinnova,” as the visionary Kitchener artist Edward Schleimer advocates. There has been a renaissance bursting to emerge for decades now. A 21st century Oktoberfest can help this city to truly flourish in ways it hasn’t been able to since the tragedies of the First Great War.

Hold fast to October – all of it, not just a nine-day slice. Extol the glory of autumn in Southern Ontario, and throughout Great Lakes North America as a whole.

Put the maypole up on May Day. October was once the eighth month. The time to begin preparation for a great harvest festival is when the original new year turns — i.e., months 1, 2 and 3. That means right about now, as our spring planting holidays unfold: the original new year at the vernal equinox, Easter, Earth Day, Arbour Week, May Day, Mothers Day, and Victoria Day.

Make land acknowledgment an integral part of every aspect of planning a revitalized Oktoberfest.

There are many ways of saying that Kitchener’s Oktoberfest takes place on the traditional home of the Neutral (Attawandoron, or Chonnonton), Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples.

It is a matter of fact that Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo are all built on the Haldimand Tract, the lands granted to the Six Nations from Upstate New York, refugees from the War that led to the separation of the United States.

Our community could lead the nation in developing a meaningful and distinct allophone Canadian dedication to honouring the promises and agreements with Indigenous peoples on which British and French North America were founded.