Riverfest, a celebration of the Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River) and what it represents for the communities that live in London, Ont., is back for the second year. Among the themes it explores is the question of water justice, through a unique art exhibit titled Confluency.
Jointly organized by Western Sustainability, Indigenous Students’ Association and Indigenous Student Centre, Riverfest23 opened on Sept. 9 and will continue until Oct. 3, with a series of events. The goal, say organizers, is to connect the Western campus community with the river.
“It’s also about connecting Western with the broader community. It’s important for the Western community to consider how the river that flows through campus connects us with the City of London and nearby First Nations like the Munsee-Delaware Nation, Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and Oneida Nation of the Thames,” said Jessica Cordes, engagement coordinator, office of sustainability.
“The river is shared amongst all of the human and non-human kin that call it home and who enjoy it for recreation and wellness,” she said.
For professor Lesley Gittings of the School of Health Studies at Western, the looming water crisis in vulnerable communities has a very personal aspect. This led to her collaborating with academics (led by professor Carmen Logie and Sarah van Borek of University of Toronto) and community members to create Confluency. Starting this week, the exhibit is available to the public on campus, as part of Riverfest, till Sept. 28.
Gittings was collaborating with researchers in Canada and South Africa earlier this year to create a space for discussion about water justice and equity.
“We wanted to do this as a community-engaged exercise, bringing together activists, academics and artists. And Cape Town, for a number of reasons, felt like the right place to start. I did my master’s degree and PhD from the University of Cape Town. It was also the world’s first major city to nearly run out of water in 2018,” said Gittings.
That crisis, she said, brought to the fore social inequities which had festered in South Africa since the days of Apartheid and colonialism. These issues and themes, along with the work of local organizations, were displayed through artworks across mediums such as comics, photo stories, videos, songs and sculptures, collectively forming Confluency.
Another significant event as part of this year’s Riverfest will be an Anishinaabe Water Walk, on Sept. 28. The event will begin with a talk led by Carol Hopkins, water chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, and her mother Irene Peters, grandmother in the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, sharing about the origins of the Mother Earth Water Walks and their healing nature.
An ode to the river
Riverfest will also see an Ode to the River Coffeehouse event, to celebrate various artistic expressions about water.
“The Coffeehouse is especially important to me because it provides a platform for participants to share their personal connections with the river, allowing us to understand how it holds meaning in their lives. I believe that these shared stories will be a powerful way to bring our community closer together,” said Erica Wilkinson, master’s student in environment and sustainability, and sustainability coordinator with Western Sustainability.
“My team and I have created new events for this year including Paint Night, hosted by Moses Lunham, artist from Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation. I am hosting the Ode to the River Coffee House, with my colleague and co-op partner Erica. We are so excited to see this coffee house come to life and have different artists perform. This is a great opportunity to understand everyone’s perspective of the Deshkan Ziibi and what it means to them,” said Preet Jassal, master’s student in environment and sustainability as well as sustainability coordinator.
The first edition of Riverfest last year was a fresh look at the river for many in the Western community, including those for whom the river and its cultural, historical and biological value has deep significance.
Allison Pert, who is one of them, looks forward to this edition of Riverfest. The fifth-year student of environmental science and biology and winner of the Youth Leader Award from the London Environmental Network last year, has been associated with several projects from the office of sustainability.
“Watching Riverfest come to life last year was a beautiful thing. The river is a large aspect of campus that I feel sometimes gets underappreciated. It’s a beautiful body of water that carries a lot of history, both with relation to how London grew as a city, and with Indigenous history. It’s about time that Antler River is getting the recognition it deserves for being such a wonderful landmark around us,” she said.