Country Thunder: You had one job

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Country Thunder runs into controversy. (Pixabay)

Since becoming editor-in-chief, I have gained a new appreciation for those who sift through thousands of public relations emails and, in contrast, furthered my disdain for awful PR penmanship. 

So, when Country Thunder sent me a press release I was remarkably unsurprised to find that their attempt at public relations was, shall we say, tone deficient. Here is the release, in full, though I’m sure they’d prefer it had been released by a right-wing media outlet uninterested in denouncing racism rather than by this left-leaning outfit. Anything in square brackets is my, ahem, interpretation. 

“In response to FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron’s comments earlier this week, Country Thunder Music Festivals are currently reviewing the complaint and comments which appeared in a media release. [When we saw that folks were calling us racist we just knew we had to double down in this media release.] 

As an organization, we strive to always be improving our festival experience, including onstage content, and we take these concerns seriously. [We strive to hide our racists well and get people drunk enough that they don’t remember what was actually said on stage.] 

‘We certainly welcome open dialogue and communication,’ says Country Thunder Music Festivals’ General Manager, Kim Blevins. ‘This type of concern is not anything we take lightly.’ [We are open to any opinion as long as it’s ours.] 

On behalf of our dozens of staff, contractors, performers and guests of aboriginal descent in Saskatchewan, it needs to be clearly understood that racism of any kind is not tolerated within the Country Thunder Music Festivals family. [Unless they’re hired to make racist jokes, in which case, have at it.] 

As artists and entertainers for the past half-century, Williams & Ree have been performing in the Craven Valley since 1983. Terry Ree is of Sioux descent and considers Saskatchewan his second home. Country Thunder Saskatchewan has had a relationship with the festival hosts for the past 15 years. [We heard our uncles use the, “but we’re one sixteenth Cherokee” defence once, and we think it will work in this incredibly sensitive corporate scenario.] 

That said, Country Thunder Music Festivals understands changing times and equally changing climates of political correctness not only in Saskatchewan, but in all Country Thunder host markets. [We’d like to remind our well-paying patrons that our racism is their problem.] 

During Country Thunder Saskatchewan 2019, it was our distinct honour to host a nightly on-stage ceremony acknowledging that the Country Thunder Saskatchewan festival site in the Craven Valley is held on the original lands of the Cree, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakota and Lakota – the traditional lands of the Treaty 4 territory. The flag ceremonies used traditional Cree and Nakota language, and was very well-received by the Craven audience. [Look at us, we acknowledged that First Nations people are people, where’s our ally cookie?] 

Rather than take anything away from what was an otherwise outstanding weekend which truly saw the people of Saskatchewan come together during rain and shine, Blevins says that this can be the beginning of further expanded relationships with all parties involved. [We need to talk more, and by talk more, we mean you non-white people need to agree with us.] 

‘Although we have strong indigenous relationships in this province, we would like to restore the balance and develop a deeper understanding of the indigenous perspective,’ she says. ‘As an organization, we have learned much about the cultures and want to continue that education. Now is the time to communicate with our partners and to address these concerns. Our home of Saskatchewan is the perfect place to begin this process with all Country Thunder Music Festivals throughout North America.’ [Thank god this happened in Saskatchewan, if it was anywhere else we’d be getting sued, we’d like to go back to our prejudice being behind closed doors rather than out in the open.]” 

Oof, okay, a lot to unpack here. Country Thunder’s choice to invoke a heritage-related defence is both inexcusable and unrelentingly stupid. The entire release reads like an apology with a trap door underneath it. The headline for this email should have read, “Sorry not sorry,” at least they would have been being a tad more honest. Also, just because you give a land acknowledgement does not mean that you are let off from any responsibility. It’s obvious that the organizers were/are only interested in lip service.  

Look, if I was looking for truth and reconciliation I think I would find neither in abundance at Craven at the best of times, but the least they could do was not be hypocritical and condone racism. In fact, it’s even more frustrating that an organization like Country Thunder would hold themselves up as defenders of Indigenous peoples in their predominantly white space and then turn around and do the opposite. I’ll close with the words of Aren Okamaysi. The local Indigenous artist’s Facebook response puts the issues at hand better than any white settler ever could. 

“So I was at country thunder when the ‘joke’ was made. Here’s the thing: 

1) For a joke, it was terribly executed and couldn’t have landed on a flat open field. There was no setup or trump card at play. You’re supposed to ‘punch up’ not down. They broke the rules of comedy. It read like a drunk uncle making a left-field comment in the middle of thanksgiving dinner. (They were both wasted and barely coherent I should add) Absolute cringe. Even some of the white people around me had no clue what they were going on about, but they heard the words “drunk Indian” and laughed anyway. 

2) This is for the white people: imagine you’re walking alone in North Central in Regina late at night, or Meadow Green in Saskatoon. You probably feel like you’re in danger. Right, so there I am (thankfully with my white girlfriend) walking in the middle of Pil Country, young native guy with a braid, with a bunch of rural Sasky folk in their element; drunk. A good chunk of these people in attendance are Gerald Stanley sympathizers. The guys on the stage make this non-joke and everyone looks at you and some of the few native people, they get that sick sparkle in their eye. (My coloured friends know this look) One wrong move, and I might get lynched on the way back to my car. Very fun sinking guttural feeling. Like you’re surrounded by hungry wolves. 

3) This comment by ‘professional comedians’ was encouraging and validating racism to the white audience. Completely unprofessional and wholly lacking of any responsibility. 

4) They’re old and washed up. A quick Google search of ‘First Nations comedians in Canada’ should bring up a good list of comedians you should follow. Quality content, and actually funny.” 

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