“How did it start…that’s a loaded question!” Sitting across the table from Westfest founder, Elaina Martin, I could see the effect the question had on her as she reached back into her mental archives to revisit her life back then, and the brewing of ideas that would lead to the creation of an event thirteen years ago that would help shape, define, and embrace a community. Drawing from her natural producing/directing abilities and her past experience as a singer/performer, she set out to create a multi-faceted music festival right on the streets of her beloved neighbourhood of Westboro. And the best part — it would be free for all to enjoy.
“It was a progression of something I’d already started a couple of years prior to Westfest. I had produced and directed the Rock City Women’s Fest – an all-women’s music festival in 2001 and 2002, which happened at the Wakefield quarry. But it was difficult to live in Ontario and try to run an event in Quebec, as well as the idea of an all-women’s theme wasn’t particularly popular at the time.”
“I was living in Westboro at the time and found it was a pretty dead area with so many Mom-and-Pop stores closing up everywhere…it was really depressing. It was day and night from the Westboro you see today. I‘d wanted to do another festival and do it here in Ontario. So I thought, let‘s do this on the street and draw some people out here, and maybe save some of these shops at the same time. So it totally worked.”
After moving to Ottawa from Sudbury 25 years ago, Martin found herself not being able to enjoy or feel comfortable at many of the big dollar-tagged art happenings/events in the city. With this inhibiting factor in mind, the diversity of acts and their accessibility was something quickly established from the onset of Westfest.
In its first year (2004), the one-day event saw an attendance of 5,000, with Jane Siberry as the headlining act. Over the years, one day evolved into a 3-day affair, the street space expanded to compensate its growing size, and the acts were quickly becoming larger-scaled. However, the downside of this success was that it began to turn into a slightly different animal than its original premise.
Then last year, things came to what seemed a near-catastrophic situation when the festival’s main sponsor, Westboro BIA, could not warrant the financial support as it had in the past. But after taking stock of the 13 years of support garnered in the wake of Westfest, the initial threat of devastation turned into a complete blessing in disguise:
“It kind of got out of control near the end. I was closing 14 city blocks – it was spreading out more and more. I was starting to lose sight of my mandate because of the pressures that such a big sponsor had on me, and I wasn’t willing to bend. People were telling me to start charging, but that wasn’t the mandate of the festival. You don’t change your mandate, you keep working with your eyes firmly planted on it.
I wasn’t willing to charge, nor was I willing to not be as diverse as I wanted to be. The financial relationship with the BIA ended without notice last fall. At first, I felt like someone had let the air out of me, but then I realized how much this new community [Mechanicsville] embraced Westfest, and how it has stepped up financially. Eight months later, we now have new title sponsors, and new main stage sponsors. We completely revamped the event, and I acquired a whole new selection of partners and supporters.”
Now celebrating its 13th year, Westfest will be featuring an all-local artist line-up, which speaks for its apt sub-title, Homemade Jam. It will include a variety of music and spoken word performers, dance troupes, an Indigenous pavilion, buskers, artisans, concessions, and a large licensed space. The first day will be dedicated to family oriented events, including a Kid Zone loaded with activities for children. The Thom Fountain Team Stage (main stage) will be the site of all featured performers throughout the 3-day celebration.
It is also the first year that Westfest will be located in its new home at Laroche Park, 5 acres of luscious green space situated north of Scott St. with plenty of parking on the surrounding residential streets. It is minutes from the OC Transpo Transitway and O-Train stations at Bayview. Bike paths are also close by and the festival grounds will have on-site, secured bike parking.
“On our main stage this year, as well as musical acts, we have our spoken word and family programming. We swap it up…one year we’ll do Westfest ‘lit’, and the next we’ll do Westfest ‘spoken word’ or ‘dance’. We throw in those different disciplines every year depending on what we’ve done the year before and try to mix it up. So this year it’s Westfest ‘spoken word’ that we’re focused on and I’m pretty proud of the line-up.”
“And now we’re on 5 beautiful acres of green grass – one big giant square. So no matter what we’re doing, we’re all together, instead of being stretched out on pavement. It’s also the first year in 13 years that we’ve ever dedicated all 3 days and nights to Ottawa. I think we need a real stage for local talent…somewhere where 10,000 show up and they’re the headliner. Every year I literally get thousands of local Ottawa submissions, and so when I had only dedicated Sundays to that, I’d only have about 10 spots available for local bands. It shows you that there’s a lot right here in our own hometown…we have some amazing names here.”
The Indigenous factor of Westfest has always been something that is not only near and dear to her proud, Métis roots, but pertinent as far as Martin is concerned. It is a clear fact that Westfest has always taken place on unceded and never surrendered Algonquin territory and has interwoven Indigenous acts into its general programming.
“This year, with Laroche Park right beside our great river, Kitchissippi, I wanted to honour our Algonquin people by building an Indigenous pavilion, bringing in Indigenous artisans, and to reflect as many tribes across the country as we can. I’m letting them sell their wares all week, and they’re keeping 100% of the proceeds. It’s one way that I, and Westfest, can give back and promote them. I don’t feel that any of us acknowledges this enough, and I think it’s important to keep this as much in the forefront as possible. We’re proud to have that aspect a bit more this year, with acts throughout the weekend.”
Plans for next year’s programming are already underway, with Laroche Park also looking forward to Westfest’s return. By the end of my conversation with Elaina Martin, I saw a woman who is steadfast in her convictions, strong in her Métis heritage, proud of her community and its wealth of local talent, and appreciative of the abundant supporters who have made it possible for her to freely act on the implementation of her ideas, and to keep her mandate of Westfest alive and well.
Friday night’s headliner will feature Métis family dance troupe, Prairie Fire, and Saturday and Sunday’s headliners will showcase The Souljazz Orchestra, and Luther Wright & The Wrongs respectively. For a complete listing of events, activities, and artist line-up/schedule, please visit westfest.ca. A special airing of Apt613Live, dedicated to everything Westfest, will take place on CHUO 89.1 FM on Tues, May 31st at 6pm.