On Saturday, Aug. 24, I attended a wonderful event at the Centre Stage Theatre in Summerland named Celebration!, which recognized the many songs, plays, poems and more of one of Canada’s pioneering but controversial cultural voices, George Ryga.
The theatre was full of friends, storytellers, admirers, supporters, and a visible warmth that nurtured the evening from beginning to end.
As the host of the annual Ryga Arts Festival, Summerland has the distinct privilege to wrap its arms around the literary, political, and artistic contributions of George Ryga.
Ryga lived here from 1963 until his death in late 1987 at the age of 55, just weeks before he was to attend a prestigious invitation only literary event overseas.
There were several poignant moments during the evening, from the welcoming words of festival director Heather Davies and Coun. Doug Holmes who acknowledged our presence on unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) people, to the humbling prayer offering from Sylix elder Richard Armstrong, who, it turns out, likes to make people laugh.
Next was a heart-felt reflection from Joan Phillip about the important role George Ryga played in identifying a Canadian landscape struggling to build healthy relationships with First Nations people.
A long-time friend of Ryga, Dick Clements stepped onto the stage with purpose and focus to read Ryga’s poems with a genuine youthful zeal and inviting audience participation.
I wanted to shout, “Encore.”
Before the intermission, there was a screening of the award-winning short documentary, Just a Ploughboy, revealing the humbling farming life of Ryga’s early years in Alberta, often working alongside Indigenous men, which was instrumental in stirring his passion for social justice.
After intermission, an impressive caliber of actors and singers performed monologues, songs, and novel readings with passion and conviction.
As the show unfolded, my admiration grew for the breadth and depth of Ryga’s talent, as well as his struggle for truth, his commitment to social justice, and his belief in humanity.
He never gave up believing in a better world and his capacity to help.
In his last poem titled, Resurrection, Ryga argued for his survival to fight against the world’s injustice with the refrain, “I have not done enough!”
George Ryga was seen by many as a visionary, and this festival is a short but meaningful venue for locals and visitors to embrace the poet and activist.
If you can’t make any of the scheduled events during the festival this year, put the festival on your calendar for next year, and until then, I highly recommend reading his biography or one of his many brilliant literary works.
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