Peace-a-Chord may have changed over the years, but Erin Whitney gives a personal history of one of the city’s oldest – but least-established – summer festivals.
If all the festivals in town were a family, the Folk Festival would be, well, the folks, George Street Festival the party animal brother, the Lantern Festival the giggly sister in sparkly fairy wings, and Peace-a-Chord would be the rebellious, idealistic teenager. A little loud and unruly, it questions authority and occasionally gets into trouble. It doesn’t always live up to its potential, but its heart is true, and you just have to have faith it will turn out all right. Conflict with the City of St. John’s has caused the festival to reevaluate itself in the past few years, as organizers ponder the future of the festival.
Peace-a-Chord is actually twenty-one years old, which is pretty old in festival years. Especially considering it’s run by a loose affiliation of young artists and activists that shifts from year to year. Peace-a-Chord is as grassroots as it gets. Born in 1985, it was conceived as a gathering place for radicals, activists, and concerned citizens to voice ideas and inspire action on issues as wide ranging as nuclear disarmament, poverty, women’s rights and environmental conservation. The free, weekend-long festival in Bannerman Park raised its voice with music from punk to folk and everything in between, speakers and other performers, all centered on social change.
When I was a kid, I loved going to the park on Peace-a-Chord weekend. I hadn’t a clue what the festival was about, but the energy was electric. Upon becoming a rebellious teen myself, I joined Youth for Social Justice, which ran the festival at the time. Soon, well, I got addicted to late-night newsletter layout (probably the Sharpie fumes), and that was it for me. I’ve still never felt anything quite like looking over a sea of smiling people dancing to a reggae band as the sun sets, their heads full of ideas, questions and inspiration. I spent five summers giving that weekend away to whoever wanted it, to take from it whatever they could.
Over those five years, YSJ disintegrated, we moved out from under Oxfam’s wing and the uphill battle of preventing the festival’s becoming just another rock show began. But Peace-a-Chord is what the community makes it. And the activists seemed to be withdrawing into the woodwork, with fewer enthusiastic speakers and musicians singing about change. But the indie and punk musicians were clamoring for stage space. They might not have been passionate about any particular issue, but they were supportive of the aims of the festival. And so the festival evolved from a rockin’ protest rally into a concert with a social conscience.
Meanwhile, Bannerman Park was becoming a stronghold of skeets who liked to smash bottles and set banners on fire. In 1999, I left the festival disheartened. I had heard too many bands whine about their set times, too many speakers decline because no one was listening, and had too many fights with drunks intent on destruction.
In 2003, City Council received a petition from residents asking not only for the removal of the festival, but also for a solution to the year-round drinking, fighting and vandalism in Bannerman Park. Council immediately banned the two-day festival (though it has yet to deal with the other 363 days). So a few reformed addicts like myself got together to fight Council’s decision. After countless meetings at City Hall, Peace-a-Chord tried it their way in 2004 with a $10,000 security bill and a maze of orange snow fencing. All to keep those pesky kids from drinking in the park. The Police-a-Chord was financially unsustainable however, not to mention ridiculous-looking.
Peace-a-Chord isn’t the only festival having trouble acommodating the City’s requirements for insurance, fencing, and security. Most of the in-kind services that they formerly provided have been discontinued, forcing organizers to go to the private sector for things like staging and porta-potties. The most recent report to City Council by the Arts Advisory Committee recommended the creation of a Festival Fund “that would allocate resources both financial and logistical, to the festivals that take place in our City.”
But until the creation of such a fund, Peace-a-Chord is homeless.
Organizers, however, remain unfazed.
Sheilagh O’Leary was on the organizing committee in 1986, and describes the festival’s approach to dealing with the Man as “an interesting mix of diplomacy and anarchy”. When diplomacy doesn’t work, creativity comes into play.
Last year’s festival moved indoors at the LSPU Hall to avoid the City’s red tape (and attendant bills), and was one of the best I’ve attended. Being forced out of Bannerman Park has allowed organizers to rethink the festival and try a new model. The traditional “mainstage” model tends to focus on the music, putting all other activities in competition with the bands. Last year the days were filled with workshops and discussions, culminating in an evening of music and speakers.
This year’s festival runs a full week, August 14th – 20th. Monday to Wednesday will be filled with drum jams and picnics around town. ArtSpace, a sort of free-for-all exhibition/installation/performance runs from 5pm – 12 am on Thursday. By Friday, things will be in full swing for a weekend of workshops in dance, yoga, DIY and more, with music from The Kremlin, Black Bags, and Funky Dory to name just a few. There will be speakers and information booths from Oxfam, the Conservation Corps, Amnesty International, the Food Sharing Network and others.
Earlier this summer, Peace-a-Chord organizers met with City representatives to discuss a suitable outdoor location for the festival. They were advised to apply to the Special Events Advisory Committee for Harbourside Park, the location of the recent Jazz Festival. But the SEAC declined the application. So this year’s festival will shield itself from bureaucracy at the Masonic Temple. So long as young people are rebellious and idealistic, there will be a place for Peace-a-Chord, no matter where that may be.
– Erin Whitney