Michelle Demers Shaevitz, artistic director of Mission Folk Music Festival, which runs July 22-24. (photo from Mission Folk Music Festival)
“Mission Folk Music Festival is a wonderful combination of the familiar and the magical,” artistic director Michelle Demers Shaevitz told the Jewish Independent of how the festival has thrived for 35 years. “We’ve had the great privilege of presenting interesting and engaging music and art in a stunning setting. Imagine this creativity set among the trees, overlooking the river. We are very lucky.”
The annual festival takes place in Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission. This year, it runs over the weekend of July 22-24.
Demers Shaevitz’s history with the Mission Folk Music Festival goes back to 1991, the year she graduated from high school.
“I started by handing out volunteer tags, graduated to driving performers, moved into performer services and, from there on, to assisting our founder, Francis Xavier, with general management. When he departed in 2016, the board asked me to step into this role as the festival’s second artistic director. Adjacent to all of this, I spent 10 years working in student affairs for Simon Fraser University and the University of the Fraser Valley, as well as moving to Seattle, getting married, and having a kid.”
She credits the festival for that move and her marriage. People come to Mission from Seattle every year to volunteer and Demers Shaevitz said she has made many friends as a result.
“I was headed down there to stay with some of them and see a festival band, the Duhks, from Winnipeg,” she said. “These friends own a wine shop, West Seattle Cellars, and the night after the show, I met my future husband in the Riesling section. I’m so lucky for this festival for giving me the life I have.”
And part of that life is the Jewish community into which she married. She described herself as blessed to have it. “From the start of our relationship, Ben and I decided to incorporate Jewish traditions and holidays into our relationship,” she said. “We’re involved in the JCC here and our son attended Jewish day school for preschool and pre-K. We are members of Kol HaNeshamah in West Seattle and our son has just started Hebrew classes. I am grateful for the acceptance I’ve found in the community, as well as their amazing willingness to share knowledge, traditions and culture with me.”
In addition to the Mission Folk Music Festival, Demers Shaevitz works with Festival du Bois in Maillardville, an historic francophone neighbourhood in Coquitlam, and the Subdued Stringband Jamboree in Bellingham, Wash. She has also volunteered and served as a board member with Northwest Folklife in Seattle.
“I am lucky to have a supportive partner and a good internet connection,” she said of working remotely, notably on the folk festival. “The pandemic really demonstrated the capacity to produce and manage an event from outside of Mission. I’m generally up to Mission two to three times a month, which increases as we get closer to the festival.”
The organizing process for the music festival – which involves more than 300 volunteers – revolves around storytelling.
“If I can focus on the artistic side, I start with a story or an idea that I would like to explore,” she explained. “This year, I am digging into the idea of homecoming. I focus on artists who tell a great story through their music. Artists who are grounded in a culture and/or tradition. Artists who represent a diverse window through which to experience the world around us. It’s important to me that we highlight and celebrate diverse voices and communities. I take this responsibility very seriously.”
Another responsibility she and the festival as a whole take seriously is reconciliation – the event takes place in a park where a residential school once stood.
“We have planned our festival to respectfully acknowledge the footprint of the original site,” said Demers Shaevitz. “We are deepening relationships with the local Sto:lo community as we remain committed to the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We continue to work towards a deeper understanding of what role we can play in the healing of this space.
“We recognize the privilege we have in presenting music and dance on these grounds and will continue to work with affected communities to prioritize their experiences,” she added.
“It’s a thrill for us to return in person to Fraser River Heritage Park for our 35th anniversary festival,” said Demers Shaevitz in the press release. “I’m excited to welcome folks back to the park to share some amazing global music with them. This year’s lineup offers festival-goers everything from singer-songwriter folk to Celtic, blues, bluegrass and soul to the uniquely amazing nu-folk of Estonia’s Puuluup, the electrifying sound of Chile’s Golosa La Orquesta and, for our Saturday night main stage final act, the dynamic Québécois zydeco of Le Winston Band…. From the heart of B.C.’s Rockies, Shred Kelly will help kick off the festival Friday night, and a true Canadian treasure, William Prince, will close the show on Sunday. And in between – there’s an incredible range of tunes to enjoy.”
Leading the festival through the worst of COVID had its challenges, but also its silver linings.
“I am so grateful to have been able to work with a talented bunch of dedicated folks to produce our two online festivals,” said Demers Shaevitz. “The highlight of this for me was all the ways in which people demonstrated their willingness to support us in any way that they could. The resilience of the artists, the community to continue was so heartening. It truly fed my heart and soul. I think that I’ve continued to draw upon that resilience to get through this return to music, this return to ‘live.’”
In addition to the concerts, the three-day live event includes music workshops, Wee Folks programming “so kids and their families can enjoy listening to the music while they play,” food and artisan markets and a licensed bistro on site. For evening, day or weekend passes, including an option to camp at the site, visit missionfolkmusicfestival.ca.