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Ten years of solidarity at Mayworks 

A decade on, the art-and-activism fest fights the good fight longer and louder.

Polaris Choir performs as part of “Songs of Resilence,” happening May 9. - FOUNDRY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Polaris Choir performs as part of “Songs of Resilence,” happening May 9.

Mayworks: Festival of Working People & The Arts
To June 1
various locations

Could art help build solidarity between workers and their allies? How might revisiting local anti-racist work change how we think about climate injustice? How do you imagine a better world?

For Sébastien Labelle, these questions aren't hypothetical, nor are they unrelated. Labelle is the director of Mayworks Halifax, a festival of art and performance that explores celebration and struggle in the labour movement and beyond.

Against the odds, a mostly free festival associated with an anti-capitalist day of commemoration has not only survived—it's thrived. The 2019 installment, which kicked off on May Day, marks the festival's 10th anniversary—you'll find events exploring collective struggle and solidarity on throughout the month at venues across town.

While Labelle was once a union organizer, his first connection to Mayworks was as an artist. During the festival in 2012, he collaborated on a street theatre performance that called attention to the exploitation of migrant labour in local agriculture; two years later, he took over leadership, helped incorporate Mayworks as a not-for-profit and helmed the festival's growth from a one- or two-day affair organized through the local labour council to a stand-alone organization and multi-week event.

Labelle admits that path hasn't been easy without corporate sponsorship. But with donations from labour unions, government grants and partnerships with like-minded local businesses, Mayworks has worked its way towards a place of financial stability.

"In the arts generally, there's always a pressure for artists to work for free, and it's the same in the activist realm, so when the two come together it feels like the pressure to work for free is even bigger," says Labelle.

Making the festival accessible means paying the artists whose work makes it possible; it also means that most Mayworks events are free to attend or pay what you can, many are physically accessible and some feature ASL interpretation.

For its 10th year, Mayworks has grown again: From two weeks to a full month of programming. Labelle says that the thematic throughlines of the festival change year-to-year with the interests of the artists who submit; this year, Mayworks looks simultaneously to the past and to the future.

"I'm really pleased with the dialogue that happens between past a present in this year's programming," says Labelle. "It's important to me that when we do program things that look back, that it's contextualized within the contemporary look on it so that we don't just blindly romanticize things that happened in the past."

While the labour movement has historically been typecast—"There's very much a strong depiction of a white man in overalls"—Labelle maintains that present-day hope for a better future must necessarily mean building a better future for all. Accordingly, the purview of the festival stretches from labour struggles and contemporary working conditions to Black feminist history and climate change.

Labelle says that a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, for example, has been deliberately programmed alongside Mi'kma'ki 2030, a multidisciplinary performance in which artists imagine a just future for the land on which the festival takes place. He hopes that art and performance can help illuminate the connections between issues that might otherwise seem unrelated.

"When they're presented alongside each other you come to see the parallels, but also the junctures between the issues and communities that are affected," says Labelle. "It's really all a part of a larger struggle for human emancipation and also for the survival of our planet.

"'An injury to one is an injury to all," he says, quoting a familiar labour dictum. "So all those ones need to be properly acknowledged."

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