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'Have fun, don't forget the history': How to use a park where a residential school once stood

Leq’á:mel musician Patrick Anthony, who plays Sunday at the Mission Folk Music Festival, says enjoyment and awareness can co-exist.

For three decades now, hundreds of people have gathered every July at Fraser River Heritage Park for the Mission Folk Music Festival.

The event, which kicks off Friday, provides a huge array of music from around the world in a famously beautiful setting.

But Fraser River Heritage Park—Mission’s most popular central park—has its own complex past, and was once home to a residential school. In recent years, the City of Mission, local organizations, and residents have been increasingly wrestling with the property’s past. That has included the replacement of old interpretive signage, along with research and work and collaboration with First Nations to better acknowledge and understand the past. The park itself, though, remains and is actually slated to grow. Adjacent Crown land was recently returned to local First Nations, and they are leasing 50 hectares back to Mission to expand the park area.

That’s a lot of baggage for a single park and a lot of history for visitors to process. For Patrick Anthony, though, that doesn’t mean joy and music shouldn’t also ring out across the site.

Anthony, a member of Leq’á:mel First Nation, will be one of the dozens of musicians performing over the three-day festival. We asked him about his music, and about how he believes people should use a park with a serious past.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

FVC: How did you start as a musician?

Anthony: I think I’ve always been interested in music. I first started playing guitar around 15.I’m a stubborn individual so I never wanted to take lessons. I appreciate that they help but I’m self-taught with a lot of things and that's one of them. Right off the bat at 15 I started playing and writing. I’m sure it was not good!

I’m an 80s 90s kid so I’ve gone through the grunge phase with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I still love them. But it’s not my style that I write. And as I progressed as a musician, I just kind of slowly got more into the storytelling, and leaning on life experience. I’ve always been a huge blues guy, so in the last five or six years, I sat down to make a go of it by myself instead of with a band. And I just started working real hard and sort of writing what came naturally.

FVC: How does your background and your life experiences inform your music?

Anthony: I’ve always been a big fan of blues. The older I got—I did not used to like country music at all. I used to be the guy who, for lack of a better term, shit all over country music.

And the more I've kind of leaned into it, the more I realized that blues and country kind of go hand in hand. Not the mainstream stuff, but some of these artists that aren't getting played 100 times on the radio. The Jason Isbells of the world, those guys really dig deep into life imagery, and the experience they've had even if they seem super menial.

Isbell’s got a song on his new album called Cast Iron Skillet. And the premise of the song is just memories of his grandma kind of. I just realized, as I got older, that those are the songs that really always hit home for me. And as I started writing them, they just kind of came more naturally. That's really informed my style: just trying to find imagery that people can relate to, and talking about all the stuff I've gone through.

I've gone through a separation with two kids. I've changed jobs multiple times, I've moved to multiple cities, kind of progressively east. I've dealt with being broke. I've dealt with having money… And whether it works or not, is to be said still, but I'd like to write music that people can relate to.

Anthony recently released a new single called “Freedom Road”. On his Facebook page, he writes that the song was inspired by the history of the Shoal Lake 40 Reserve.

FVC: How did your [Indigenous] ancestry affect your music?

Anthony: My mom's side, my maiden side is Indigenous, and part of Leq’á:mel.

It’s something that I didn't lean into for a long time. I wasn't embarrassed or anything to discuss it. I've been around it since I was young. But as I've gotten older, what I've realized is that, despite being Indigenous, or in spite of being Indigenous, I grew up pretty privileged.

I've come across a lot of family and cousins and different people that I've met over the years, but who I realized didn't have the same [upbringing] as me, but had some pretty cool upbringings also. Over the last f six to 10 years, I've leaned more into it and I’ve tried to become more [personally] involved. Specifically, I don't write a lot about it; I try to keep my songs fairly neutral, in the sense of just kind of general humanity.

My single that came out the other day, Freedom Road, is probably the first one I've written that really dives into the topic of the fact that I'm sitting here, living this great life—if I quit music tomorrow and just worked, I'd still have a great life—and there's so many people out there that still don't have access to even drinking water.

It's just something we don't even think about. We walk to the tap, we drink the water, we don't think twice. People spend a lot of money on distilled water and all these vitamin waters and all these things. And then we have people in our country that have to boil their water and let it cool just to drink it.

So I think going forward, it's something that will probably be a little more prevalent [in my music]. I've never been a super-political guy in that sense. But I think it's just it hits home when I get to meet some of these people that grew up that way. I have relatives that went to residential schools, and I didn't even know that until a year or two ago. So it's a pretty new thing for me to really dive into it. I'm both excited, but it's kind of bittersweet to write because you've learned all these horror stories.

Patrick Anthony recently shot a video for his new single at Fraser River Heritage Park. 📷 Patrick Anthony

FVC: The Mission Folk Music Festival is at the Fraser River Heritage Park and a residential school used to be on that property. I know, There's been a lot more acknowledgement lately of that, and the Folk Festival acknowledges it is on Leq’á:mel territory. (The festival also kicks off with a performance by Leq'á:mel performers. Do you have any thoughts or perspective that you'd like to share on the site?

Anthony: I really try hard to not get involved in social media. I don't often respond. [But recently] a lady had moved to Mission, and she's Caucasian and she had asked a question about whether it was appropriate for her to just use the park for her family given the history.

I responded just with my own opinion, as a member of a local First Nations band, and I said: ‘I think that that's all that they would ever have wanted is for you to use that park and enjoy the space with your family.’

Make memories there. Have a good time. Just don't forget the history and the importance of what happened there. Because I really equate our Canada's residential schools to United States Black slavery, in a sense… I think they're very—they have a lot of similarities in a sense.

So when it comes to [Fraser River Heritage Park]—I actually just shot a music video there yesterday for Freedom Foad. And you know we had an elder there who actually went to St. Mary's—not the one that was on Heritage Park, but the one that’s newer, about a two-minute walk away. And it's a weird feeling when you're there, because you realize likely some bad bad stuff happened there.

But knowing all my Indigenous family that I've ever spoken to in the way they approach life, I don't think they would ever not want to share that beautiful piece of property with people. So overall, I encourage people to use it and enjoy and make memories and just, hopefully they understand what happened there and it serves as a reminder to not ever let something like that happen again.

FVC: It sounds like you’re saying: you're kind of saying that knowing and acknowledging and being aware broadening your perspective is important.

Anthony: Sure. That's all I ask people: when you go there, read some of the signage that’s there. Understand what you're walking on, and what you're using and what you're enjoying. But at the same time, it's a beautiful piece of property with amazing views and make some memories there with your family.

This will be Anthony’s first appearance at the Mission Music Folk Festival. Like most artists in the Fraser Valley, Anthony has to balance a day job with his passions. We asked how he makes both work.

FVC: What’s it like as a musician trying to make your way in a world that can be hard for an artist or creative person of any type? What’s it like and what do you like about it?

Anthony: It's tough, man. It's tough trying to find the time.

I know there's some people who can sit down and write songs very structurally, they can pick two hours and then try and really focus. That's not how I operate. I write when I get the inspiration. So it's tough to find the time to balance it all.

One of the biggest struggles I find is the promotional aspect of it. I could write a song at one in the morning, but finding time to actually pitch your songs to radio, and try and get out there and try to do all of your own stuff [is difficult]. Because I don't have the money. I'm a taxpaying homeowner, that's broke like the rest of us, right?

So that's probably the biggest struggle: the balance. I would love to just commit 10 hours a day to music. What I do love about it is that I never get tired of it. I don't care how tired I am going to a gig, once I'm up there with a guitar, it's so enjoyable.

When I get the inspiration to write, I go write and I love doing it. Even the bad stuff that I made, it's still so satisfying to have an art form that you can share with the world. It's scary, but it's satisfying. I decided long ago that I don't think I could ever just stop. There's people who quit playing music and just move on and I don't think that'll ever be me. So I'll keep plugging away and grinding and grinding. And hopefully one day I get a little more traction.

This will be the first year Patrick and his band play at the Mission Folk Music Festival.

FVC: How did you hook up with the Mission Folk Music Festival people?

Anthony: That's a good word-of-mouth story. I played a gig in Chilliwack and the director of Tourism Chilliwack happened to be there. And she talked to us after the show and thought it was great and put me in touch with Tourism Mission. So I reached out to them and slowly over the course of the last year, they booked me some small gigs.

And I try my best to treat every gig as a big opportunity. That's an old Tragically Hip thing: there's a ton of interviews where they talk about playing to nobody. And I've definitely played my share of bars where there's only two people left by the end of the night. And you don't know who those two people are.

So I approach every gig as a good opportunity. And that's kind of snowballed into the fact that I ended up meeting the director of Mission Folk Fest, Michelle. She had heard of my name—I think she might have come out and saw us once—and she took a chance on us and here we are.

FVC: What are you expecting from it?

Anthony: I don't know. I am excited. I'm going into it with the intent to play our heart out and gain some traction. At the very, very least, we get to go and kick ass on a stage and have some fun doing it. The best possible outcome is that people who've never heard of me will like the sound and leave having found a new artist to listen to.

The Mission Folk Music Festival runs from Friday, July 21, to Sunday, July 23. It opens Friday with a performance by Leq’á:mel dancers. Anthony plays on the Market Stage Sunday at 2pm. A full schedule is available online.

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