This article originally appeared on GIG CITY.
If you’ve noticed people doing inexplicable things with canoes this weekend, don’t worry, it’s not some kind of French-Canadian uprising: The Flying Canoe Volant is in full swing.
The annual winter festival calls itself “a cultural, creative and interactive event designed to celebrate local history and the magic of a long winter night.” Wrapping up Saturday, Feb. 1 in the French Quarter, Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton Ski Club, La Cite Francophone and other area venues, it’s a three-day celebration of the First Nations, French-Canadian and Métis culture. At its core, it just wants to add some happiness to your seasonally-affected hearts this time of year. In short, they’re trying to make winter fun in Edmonton.
The festival is named after a First Nations and French-Canadian legend in which voyageurs are given the ability to fly in a birch bark canoe after cutting a deal with the devil – which participants actually did on Friday night in Mill Creek Ravine. Fly in canoes, not make deals with the devil.
The canoe race is a central feature of Flying Canoe Volant – evoking visions of old-time voyageurs slashing through the icy waters of the North Saskatchewan River for glory. The actual race in 2020 had some of the glory, with different methods. Drawing an estimated 200 people, it was a challenge to make sense of the chaos amidst course tweaking, speech preparing, and axe throwing. And lots of canoes, big and small.
What a battle it was! After an opening song by the indigenous Alexis Singers, the corporate race began. (The public race runs Saturday, Feb. 1.) Several Edmonton businesses were pitted head to head in a two-part relay. The first challenge was sledding down a pre-made groove in the ski hill in a real canoe. Even with the running start teams had, some failed to reach the bottom of the hill. For the next challenge, two team members had to cut through a log using a two-man saw.
The race was a hilariously fun tongue-in-cheek way to make accessible some of the cultural artifacts and traditions of the groups that have created Flying Canoe Volant. The race schedule wasn’t entirely clear, nor was the winner, but no one seemed to care. Spirits were high.
This festival has become a cultural staple. You can justify living here through the winter by taking refuge in the French Quarter and cultural enrichment and fun. Get your fill of maple syrup toffee, sledding, and a full handmade market. La Cite is the main indoor venue, hosting events like the late-night FCV cabaret.
Beyond giving Edmontonians something to in the winter, there is a fundamental need for this festival, says spokesman André Prévost. “It’s important to highlight the founding minorities of the capital region. There’s lots of cultural diversity in Edmonton, but it’s important to remember the roots,” Prévost said, while wearing a large canoe.
Flying Canoe Volant’s stand out by-far is the interactivity. Families are able to select what type of night they wish to have based on the activities of each different location, like the “Illuminated Trails” event in the Mill Creek Ravine, a tucked-away piece of the river valley transformed into a magical time capsule. There were three different “camps” to choose from in the ravine. The Indigenous Camp had a culinary heritage event hosted by Chefs Scott Iserhoff and Jeff Butters, and a ReconcilliACTION event hosted by Winston Wuttunee. The Metis Camp had dancing with the Dave Cunningham Family Band, bannock-making hosted by Sharon Larose; and a Trapper Exhibit with Robert Grandjambe Jr., and an 1885 Heritage Camp by Fort Edmonton. The Trapper’s Cabin section had storytelling with Roger Dallaire. The ravine is difficult to find from the French Quarter, even with the maps, but all who underwent the trek said it was well worth it.
There are a few things any festival is never without: live music. Local performers included the ska band King Muskafa, along with some incredible art installations, ice sculptures, and vividly coloured LED’s that change the snow to ethereal pastels.
Every year, Flying Canoe Volant lights up a dark time of long nights and cold days in Edmonton with song, spirit, and cultural celebration.