THUNDER BAY – The fourth Wake the Giant music festival drew thousands to Thunder Bay’s waterfront on Saturday for an event that mixed world-beating headliners with local talent and a focus on welcoming Indigenous youth to the city.
The bill was topped by Brooklyn rockers X Ambassadors, Australian singer-songwriter Dean Lewis, and Canadian DJ Deadmau5, one of the biggest names in electronic dance music.
Earlier in the day, rising local artist Sara Kae won over the crowd with a set of pop-inflected original songs, a handful of covers of artists including Paul Simon and Dua Lipa, and a dynamic backing band.
Sagatay, from Big Trout Lake, entertained with a classic rock sound and guitar heroics.
Mattmac, a producer and pop-trap star hailing from Manitoba, elevated the energy with driving beats and gregarious crowdwork.
Greg Chomut, a teacher at DFC and one of the organizers of the festival, said its lineup is a carefully calibrated balancing act.
“A big part of our goal is promoting Indigenous artists, so it’s always going to be more than 50 per cent Indigenous artists on the lineup,” he said. “Then we’re thinking of all kinds of things – we’re thinking of bands that are open to working with students, we’re thinking of bands that our students are going to really enjoy, and we’re thinking about bands that the wider area of Thunder Bay is going to really enjoy.”
X Ambassadors pumped up the crowd by opening with their singalong smash Renegades, for which they were joined by a jingle dress dancing group featuring DFC students.
Harmony Fiddler, a Grade 12 student at DFC originally from Sandy Lake, was one of those dancers. She first joined the group last year.
“It gives experience to those who don’t have experience jingle dress dancing, like me,” she said. “My time at DFC, I just spent really reconnecting with my culture, and jingle dancing was a really big step. I’m really proud of it.”
She called the experience of performing on-stage with X Ambassadors – the first time she’d danced to pop music, rather than pow wow songs – nerve-wracking, but ultimately rewarding.
The concert helps welcome students to Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which serves youth from 20 northern First Nations that do not have their own secondary schools.
The school is operated by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC).
The event is also meant to highlight the wider Wake the Giant campaign, which has brought attention to challenges students arriving from remote communities face, including culture shock and anti-Indigenous racism.
The campaign encourages local businesses and other organizations to pledge to be “inclusive spaces” where Indigenous youth feel welcome, displaying a Wake the Giant decal and receiving a cultural awareness package for staff.
The deaths of several DFC students while attending school in Thunder Bay in the 2000s and 2010s, the subject of the seven fallen feathers inquest, were referenced in videos played between musical acts, with current DFC students saying they hope the Wake the Giant campaign will help avert further tragedies.
Chomut expressed hope that Wake the Giant has helped move the needle, while adding more needs to be done.
“That was the reason we started it, is [students] were sharing their bad experiences, and it was heartbreaking,” he said. “Now, I’m hearing a lot more [positive things] – like someone riding the bus, seeing the logo, and just getting a sense that they’re welcome here.”
One of the joys of the event, he said, is how local students have the chance to shine alongside established music stars, some of whom work with students leading up to the show.
Chomut’s own music class wrote and performed an original song with Sara Kae on Saturday.
“I think it’s a humungous confidence booster,” he said. “A lot of times, people are held back by just the confidence to attempt something. Our students are getting the chance to see at a very early age that people want what they have. If they want to get involved in music, if they want to get involved in art, they can do it, and people are going to enjoy it.”
Kae called her participation in the event meaningful, saying she hopes to help open doors for the next generation of Indigenous artists.
“[It’s] not just Indigenous community members, it’s other people too who are supporting an event such as this that means so much [as] a step in the right direction for the community here in Thunder Bay and inclusivity,” she said.
“It just feels good that we’re acknowledging and supporting Indigenous artists right now… Before, I didn’t really see a lot of Indigenous people in the industry, and I didn’t feel that we were represented or there wasn’t space for us.”
Organizers were expecting upwards of 6,000 people in attendance Saturday.
The first Wake the Giant festival, held in 2019, drew around 4,000 people.