festival lineup

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.