Arsonfest :: Turning outrage into positive change

by Brad Skibinsky

Winnipeg is known for many things. If I were to list the top responses I get from people from elsewhere, they would include murder, child poverty, the city being a frozen shithole, and arson.

The legal definition of arson must satisfy four elements, encompassed by the phrase “The malicious burning of the dwelling of another.” Every year, as soon as the snow begins to recede, local media begins heralding the onset of arson season as though it is a natural phenomenon, as cyclical as the changing of the weather. In the last decade, arson has been both a terrible, dangerous crime and a media obsession, simultaneously becoming an identity and a premature endpoint in the discussion of the larger social forces at play in our city. It had become an ubiquitous phenomenon and, to some, a representation of the end result of an ill-advised trend towards cutting services that were available to inner city youth in a city already known for its child poverty, gang violence and high murder rates. It had been latched onto by the media in such a sensationalistic fervor with no examination of possible root causes, and still is, now that the problem has moved from its comfortable hiding spot in the “pockets of the inner city, where small arsons and fires were relatively common” into the suburban dreamscape of Fort Rouge.* The beginnings of this phenomenon and its political context are the environment that Arsonfest was born in, in the wake of the wave of larger cultural panic around the turn of the millenium.

Grindcore and the DIY scene have always had an element of social consciousness, if not a political bent. Much of what has been done has been in direct response to a lack of options and a general outrage at the glaring injustices inherent in day to day life. Arsonfest also occupies that sphere of thought; the idea that not everything needs to be set up by another, with its existence subject to their whims, and alongside that, a sense of social responsibility also exists.

Arsonfest organizer Mike Alexander and his long-running promotional entity Mount Elgon Productions have made a point of using the festival’s existence not only to provide a safe space for an all ages crowd to witness some of the most brutal bands to come through Winnipeg for the last 12 years, the festival’s proceeds are also donated to a rotating cast of community organizations that are largely ignored or marginalized by government funders. Past festivals have benefitted Osborne House, Powwow to Honour Children (who have died as a result of violence), the Rainbow Resource Center, and Free Grassy Narrows. Proceeds from this year’s festival will be donated to Sisters In Spirit in lieu of any meaningful action on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women displayed most recently by the powers that be.

Sisters in Spirit is a national organization that honours missing and murdered Aboriginal women across the country,” says Alexander. “SIS rallies support for the families of these women while speaking out against this tragedy. In 2011, SIS organized a total of 84 vigils and marches across the country, keeping the stories of these women in the public eye. Mount Elgon Productions recognizes these efforts and commits the proceeds of Arsonfest 2012 to Sisters In Spirit.”

The connection between the crime of arson and the festival ends with the name, and the rest is left to pundits like Harry Lazarenko – who famously decried what he misinterpreted as a flippant use of the term – to misunderstand at a glance. However, a comparison between an arsonist burning another’s property and the auditory damage that the visiting bands have done to the hearing of the attendees is appropriate. Past performances have included a pre-Relapse Mastodon, Bloody Phoenix, Brainoil, Damage Deposit, Half Gorilla, Mudlark, Six Brew Bantha, Haggatha, Big Trouble In Little China, Wolbachia, The Endless Blockade, Northless, Sick/Tired, Osk, and tons more.

This year’s lineup and full info are online on Facebook and at Performance highlights include locals Archagathus, Violent Gorge, Putrescence, Cetascean, Scab Smoker, Flash Out and Plague; and aural decimation from elsewhere will be brought by the Great Sabatini (QC), Bridgeburner (BC), Honour and Devour (BC), Burning Ghats (BC), a return performance by Wisconsin wrecking ball Northless, Misanthropic Noise (CT), Violent Restitution (BC, not to be missed), Gowl (CT) and Wisconsin’’s Shroud Of Despondancy.

2012 sees Arsonfest taking up residence at Negative Space on August 10th and 11th, with exclusive local record distribution by Mass Deadening. Tickets are $15 for each night of the festival, available at the door. Get on the internet and do your research; there is not a slouch among the lineup, and not a moment of relaxation will be had.

Further information on Sisters In Spirit can be found at

*from Winnipeg Free Press, March 8, 2012

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