Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival

Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival continues its tradition of cultural appropriation

They may have added a "Diversity and Inclusion Policy”, but representation in the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival lineup goes from bad to worse.

By Tiffanie Tri | 池家倩

Last year, we called out the lack of diversity on the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival lineup. With 11 of the 18 acts (61% of the lineup) comprised entirely of men and a single Asian musician in the entire lineup, the lack of representation felt pretty egregious given that the Festival claims to be based on the ‘ancient Chinese tradition’ of dragon boat. The Festival uses this cultural angle to receive significant public funding from programs such as Canadian Heritage's Building Communities and Heritage Fund as well as from provincial and municipal governments, yet does little to honour the culture that it so happily borrows from.

We raised concerns about how this behaviour leads to the co-opting and erasure of the community and heritage it claims to be celebrating. We stated: “Given that it receives public funding to building heritage and “inclusive” community, the Festival should look for Chinese and other Asian artists to feature on their lineup.” So, did anything change?

Change...for the worse

Seeing the addition of a new “Diversity and Inclusion Policy” on the Festival website led us to hope that the Festival had improved representation in its lineup. Unfortunately, it got worse. This year, eight out of 12 acts — two-thirds of the lineup — are comprised of all men. The remaining four acts — a third of the lineup — are fronted by women. There is not a single Asian musician, much less a Chinese-centered act in the lineup.

The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival organisers have shown, once again, that they are not willing to host lineups that represent their audience. Perhaps worse, they are equally as unwilling to shine the spotlight on musicians that reflect the heritage of the ethnic community that they benefit from. There is absolutely no excuse, especially given the numerous ongoing movements promoting diversity and inclusion.

‘Missing the boat’ on diversity and inclusion

It’s not just Ottawa’s Dragon Boat Festival. A pledge for gender parity by 2022 for music festivals has seen over 150 festivals sign on globally, 16 of which are Canadian, including Canadian Music Week, North by North East and Riverfest Elora. Not a single music festival based in Ottawa—our nation’s capital—has signed onto the pledge.

Survey findings in the official Ottawa Music Strategy revealed that only 37% of respondents (a sample of artists, industry professionals, educators and fans) consider the local music scene inclusive. This means that a majority do not feel that the music scene reflects them. At a time when the city desperately wants to develop a reputation as a ‘Music City’, we need to recognize that a vibrant and sustainable music scene will not happen unless people see themselves reflected on stage and behind the scenes - a good place to start is with our festivals.

Actions, not words

All levels of government should mandate Inclusion Targets for music festivals that they fund. Festivals that are based on a culture or heritage of minority groups should have members of this community on its boards and selection committees. This would be a starting point to address discrimination and unconscious biases in a heavily white and male-dominated industry.

Booking agencies and artist managers should ask about the diversity of a lineup when booking their artists. The industry is realizing that attaching themselves to the movement for diversity and inclusion makes sense in terms of profits and PR. However, being an ally means more than throwing a diversity and inclusion policy on a website. It will include tough decisions and conversations. It means recognizing and reconciling privilege. It might even mean stepping away from opportunities in order to make space for marginalized communities. Is the industry ready for true diversity and inclusion?

As consumers, we can speak up. We have so much power when we are intentional about the organizations that we do or don’t support. Share this post, tag Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival and let them know that a culture isn’t a cute marketing ploy; it needs to be respected, contextualized and honoured. The way that Chinese culture is currently being treated by the Festival - as a punchline or an afterthought - is unacceptable.

Last year, Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival could claim ignorance. This year, they no longer have that privilege. They simply don't care. And they won't unless we make them.

Opinion: Dragon Boat Festival Falls Short

By Tiffanie Tri

The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is a celebration of the traditional sport of dragon boat racing. The festival website says that it is "part of a larger Chinese cultural tradition that goes back 2,400 years." So why aren't there any Chinese artists in the festival's music lineup?


Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is a not-for-profit organization that survives on public funding. It receives funding from the government, including Canadian Heritage's Building Communities and Heritage program which is designed to increase opportunities for local artists and heritage performers to be involved in their community through festivals and events. It is also designed to allow local groups to commemorate their local history and heritage. As part of the program's eligibility criteria, applicants must "encourage local community engagement through activities that promote, celebrate and preserve local performing and visual arts or local heritage".

Sure, Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival presents the work of local artists, with several Ottawa-based artists in its lineup. However, there is little attempt to present the work of heritage performers. Only one act in the lineup includes an Asian musician: Birds of Bellwoods bassist Kintaro Akiyama.

Not only does Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival fail at presenting opportunities to heritage artists, the gender diversity of the festival lineup is also appalling.

Only two of the 18 acts are fronted by women and only seven of the 18 acts are not all-dude acts, with the majority of these non all-dude acts being mixed acts, some of which have only one female artist embedded in a group of dudes.


Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival lineup pictured without the all-dude bands.

But back to the original question: Where are the Chinese artists in a festival that supposedly celebrates Chinese culture? This is a part of a larger conversation and problematic habit of Western society "picking and choosing" what it wants to accept or not accept from other cultures. Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival exemplifies this behaviour by paying lip service to Chinese culture (a paltry description about Dragon Boat Tradition on its website) while shutting out Chinese artists.

Given that it receives public funding to build heritage and “inclusive” community, the Festival should look for Chinese and other Asian artists to feature on their lineup.

It should also include heritage artists that perform traditional Chinese music, dance, sports and activities. Not only do I believe that the citizens of Ottawa would be interested in learning about Chinese culture, but given that Ottawa has such a vibrant Chinese community, there is no shortage of Chinese artists and cultural activities that could be included.

The greater danger of activities like the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival is that they benefit from cultural traditions of an ethnic community without any real inclusion of culture or heritage. This leads to the co-opting and erasure of the culture and heritage of the community these festivals are supposed to be celebrating. Representation matters.

At the current rate, Dragon Boat Festival is more likely to be associated with white, male indie rock bands than Chinese culture. If the Festival wants to benefit from Chinese culture, it's time to step up and truly support and showcase Chinese heritage and culture.

Representatives from Dragon Boat Festival could not be reached for comment.

This article appears in the May 2018 edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint, page 7.