February is usually a month packed with multicultural events in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area. But this year, those events that connect communities and teach others moved online. While organizers are happy the events are being held in some way, nothing beats meeting in person.
“It’s part of our mandate to help communities stay connected, create cross-cultural understanding and build resiliency,” said Therese Greenwood, executive director of the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo (MCA). “We’ve been learning over the last year we can do that virtually and there’s a lot of community support in our current environment.”
Usually, the MCA’s expo features dozens of nationalities at MacDonald Island Park dancing and serving food to thousands of people during a weekend-long festival. This year, the showcase is part of a month-long event on Facebook.
There are 19 participants in a youth talent show, more than 160 pictures submitted for a virtual Parade of Nations and more than 40 different cultures represented throughout the event. Another 12 different cultural performances—including dances, instrumentals, cooking tutorials and poetry—are featured. An acknowledgement of Treaty 8 First Nations and the Métis was made in English, French, Spanish, Tagalog, German, Arabic and Hindi.
“We were worried we weren’t going to get any interaction, but we haven’t done anything yet that we haven’t had a bigger reaction than we were expecting,” said Greenwood. “This is a diverse community, people are really interesting in sharing.”
Other organizations have also adjusted. The Rehoboth Alliance and Afro-Canadian Community of the RMWB moved Black History Month events online after a crowded gala and ceremony last year.
This past Saturday, a virtual youth event over Zoom was held, with “resiliency and hope for the future” as the theme. Maryam Tsegaye, a student at Ecole McTavish High School and first Canadian winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, was the guest of honour. On the MCA’s Facebook page, Kg Banjoko gave a speech about the importance of Black History Month in Canada.
An online cultural and award ceremony will be held on Feb. 27. There will be performances from Donne Roberts, who has two Juno Awards and three nominations, and the Sangea Academy, an African drum group from Edmonton. Jonathan Weekes, senior vice president at Marsh Canada, will give the keynote address.
“We are doing our best to make it work. The energy is there,” said Regina Oppon, executive director of the Rehoboth Alliance. “We get calls from people saying ‘we miss the banquet,’ so it’s time to be innovative.”
Some groups have been unable to switch online, even if they are participating with the MCA’s month-long expo. The Fort McMurray Chinese-Canadian Cultural Society did not have a Chinese New Year festival after packing MacDonald Island Park in 2020. The Fort McMurray Legion did not host its annual Robbie Burns Supper, which is usually held with the Fort McMurray Highland Dancing Society.
Oppon said people are happy Black History Month events are happening and she is happy community leaders have been supportive. But, the galas and cultural performances are missed. Greenwood shared the desire to gather in person, but as long as the pandemic is ongoing, the best way forward is online.
“You can’t do exactly the same things that we’ve always done, but it just creates a lot of opportunities for a new kind of cultural exchange,” said Greenwood.