It’s not often Zanniah Toutsaint and her drumming group perform in front of so many people, but the size of the crowd doesn’t bother her one bit.
Toutsaint, a student at Father Gamache Memorial School (FGMS) in Fond-du-lac, is one of nearly 1,800 students and chaperones who arrived in Prince Albert to take part in the annual Prince Albert Grand Council Fine Arts Festival. She said it’s exciting to be part of such a large gathering.
“I don’t feel scared or nervous or anything,” she said after the group’s opening day performance. “It’s just, like, a good feeling, (being) up there drumming with my friends and just coming from all the way up north to be here for the Fine Arts Festival.
“I don’t know how to explain the feeling, but it’s awesome being here, drumming in front of people, and showing the Dene culture.”
Like many of the younger students, Toutsaint is new to her craft. She started drumming a year ago after watching drum groups at the Dene hand games in her home town. She was fascinated by the drummers and wanted to learn, although it took some searching before she could find one.
“I begged my mom to give me a drum,” she said. “I begged and I begged. I asked my Auntie Charlene from Black Lake, and she couldn’t find an elder to make it, so I asked my dad. He found me a drum and that’s how I started drumming.”
Now, Toutsaint is part of a four-student drumming group from FGMS performing at the PAGC Fine Arts Festival, and she’s loving every minute of it.
“It’s good for youth to come together,” she said. “Not many people get together, and it’s nice to get together like this—all of the community.
“(When) you have trips coming down with chaperones and friends, it’s so much fun just being here with everyone and seeing all the chiefs, grand council, and people like that.”
Seeing Toutsaint and her classmates in Prince Albert is a major boon for organizers. Last year, only 12 schools sent students to the festival. That’s a far cry from the 25 schools attending this year’s event.
Festival coordinator Shona Tretiak worried the festival would never recover from two straight cancellations due to COVID. She’s glad to see it bounce back in 2023.
“I really, really thought the festival was going to be in danger of being completely done, but last year we had 12 schools,” Tretiak said. “There were still some pandemic concerns, so we only had 12 schools. That’s less than half of what we have now. We’ve got 25 schools here this week.
“I think it’s just amazing,” she added. “The resilience of the program like this, it just shows how strong it is.”
This year is a special year for the Fine Arts Festival, and not just because they’re returning to regular capacity. It also marks 30 years since the festival first began.
Tretiak joined the festival organizing committee when the event was heading into its third year. At the time, they were glad to attract 500 students and chaperones. Now, they get triple that number, and the student artists get better every year.
“The calibre of dancing and singing and drama and the costumes and the regalia is just amazing,” she said. “They’ve upped the level.”
Tretiak said the original organizers, like her boss Larry Goldade, saw plenty of opportunities for Indigenous athletes to showcase their abilities, but that wasn’t true for artists. Goldade retired from the festival in 2008, and has since passed away, but Tretiak said his vision remains strong.
“His thing was, ‘not everybody is an athlete. Not everybody has that athletic ability or athletic want,’” she explained. “Some people just want to do things that are fun, and not that sports aren’t fun, but not everybody has that talent. Everybody’s talents are different.”
The Prince Albert Grand Council continues until Thursday, April 27 at the Exhibition Grounds.