Catch a performance, stroll the artisan market and learn more about First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture at this annual festival, held near Toronto’s Liberty Village.

The skyscrapers coming into view as we rode into Toronto on the GO bus from Hamilton were always an exciting view as a kid. The big city was someplace I could meet new people and have new experiences. Despite being grown up now, Toronto is still that same big city to me, one where I can have new experiences. The Indigenous Arts Festival is one such example. 

This festival, hosted at Fort York National Historic Site, beside Liberty Village, has been running since 2012. Every year for three days in mid-late June, it showcases Indigenous visual arts, music, dance, theatre and storytelling. Traditional and contemporary Indigenous musicians, dancers and actors perform on the festival stages, and other programming includes art demonstrations and VR experiences. The festival also features Indigenous-owned food vendors and a marketplace of Indigenous craftspeople and artists.

Join me for a day to celebrate First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists and culture.

Morning: Start with brunch & shopping

Brunch from a festival food vendor is a great way to start the day! With affordable and authentic options that could range from bannock and cedar tea, to bison burgers and pickerel dinners, you’ll be sure to find something that appeals to your palate.

I like to begin the day with a cup of warm cedar tea and fresh bannock. The bread, which was created as a response to the introduction of the “Five White Gifts”—flour, sugar, lard, milk and salt—on Indigenous reserves, tastes especially delicious with strawberry jam. This bread has a few variations throughout so-called Canada and the United States but is always a staple in Indigenous homes.

Mid-morning is a good time to stroll Fort York, check out the 30+ vendors, and pick up some souvenirs for loved ones. From paintings and jewellery to leather goods and soap, the options are endless.

Afternoon: walk to a local landmark

My favourite meal is a smoked salmon dish from PowWow Cafe (note: festival menus may vary from restaurant menus). Traditional food offers sustenance for a walk to Inukshuk Park

Previously known as Battery Park, the grounds are home to a 30-ft tall and 15-ft wide Inukshuk sculpture crafted by Inuk artist, Kellypalik Qimirpik. Based out of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, Qimirpik crafted the sculpture in celebration of World Youth Day, 2002. 

Historically, these sculptures would serve as way-finders for land and sea travelers in northern regions. Often, they could offer comfort and advice alongside their navigation purposes.

The careful craftsmanship of Kellypalik Qimirpik reminds me of the gentle ways that my people have always created with the land, as opposed to against it or from it.

Evening: enjoy the musical performances

With the evening comes a chance to sit back and enjoy the many musical and theatrical performances on stage.

Traditional singers, such as the Manitou Mkwa Singers from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, provide heartfelt songs about strong women, water, bears and wind. These songs are sung four times to honour each of the four directions, four sacred plants and four colours of the medicine wheel, and remind us, as the listeners, to respect and celebrate the many walks of life on Earth. 

Contemporary musicians like Jah’kota show young up-and-coming Indigenous artists what it can look like to be Indigenous in the music industry. The Ottawa-based artist and entrepreneur—part Jamaican and part Nakota from Ocean Man First Nation—creates hip-hop, proving that Indigenous musicians don’t have to forsake their traditional roots. 

After a long and exciting day, I like to contribute to one more Indigenous-owned business and buy a cup of relaxing Labrador tea, a traditional herbal tea similar to cedar tea.

Getting to Fort York National History Site:

  • From Bathurst subway station, take the 511 Bathurst streetcar southbound to the Fleet Street and Fort York Boulevard stop
  • Or from Union station on Line 1 Yonge-University subway line, take the 509 Harbourfront streetcar westbound to the Fleet Street and Fort York Boulevard stop