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The Evolution of the Northern Lights Festival Boreal

The Evolution of the Northern Lights Festival Boreal: From Humble Beginnings to a Cultural Beacon

Taking a deep dive into the journey of music and culture provided by Sudbury’s Northern Lights Festival

Don’t miss out on the excitement of the highly anticipated 2024 Northern Lights Festival from July 4 to 7! By securing tickets in advance online at https://nlfb.ca/home/tickets/, attendees can benefit from a lower price than buying at the door, ensuring the best value for their money! NLFB and Sudbury’s Radisson Hotel have partnered up, offering discounted ticket packages with 1 room accommodating 2 people at the Radisson + special offers at Pesto’s Italian Cuisine, conveniently located in the hotel. For more information, visit https://nlfb.ca/accommodation-package-hotel-festival-passes/

Creation of the festival: The festival’s origins date back to 1972, when Sudbury’s youth-oriented drop-in centers collaborated to create a folk festival with the leadership of Scott Merrifield, Jean-Jaques Paquette, Normand Glaude, Stan Belinski, and Ray Auger. Initially featuring local performers on a single stage, the festival quickly became an annual event due to its overwhelming success.

The Northern Lights Festival Boreal is one with its community. Once debuted as a folk festival, the NLFB has evolved with time. It has always been a festival open and considerate of emerging genres of music, which has helped it grow into what it is today—moving swiftly through each decade, keeping up with every movement while still having a solid foundation of its roots, living truthfully to the festival’s most prized values, culture and inclusivity. In the early years, the festival was free, with artists performing for the love of music. As the festival grew, it became a non-profit organization in 1975, expanding its programming to include multiple stages, diverse musical genres, workshops, and visual arts and crafts, compensating the artists and vendors, and hiring a small staff to innovate and improve the festival with each year.  

Diversity and Culture: Since its inception, NLFB has celebrated a rich tapestry of Indigenous, Francophone and multicultural music and art. Early performances by artists like Indigenous folk singer Willie Dunn and Franco–Ontarian rock heroes Canot have helped set the stage for a tradition of diversity. Modern acts such as Mohawk DJ/producer DJ Shub, Franco-Métis singer-songwriter Willows, Latin-American rapper/singer Boogát and Toronto-based Arab band Kazdoura continue this legacy, cultivating unique experiences through their performances alongside other incredible artists in this years lineup.

Community: People from all over the world have frequented Sudbury’s beloved festival. Creating the most memorable moments for some. Sudbury may not be Hollywood, but the Northern Lights Festival is like a beacon of light at the end of a tunnel. Full of love, diversity and connection. A celebration many look forward to every year.  

One of the greatest parts of the festival includes meeting new people and seeing the artists enjoy the festivities just as much as everyone else, expressing a sense of relatability and closeness between attendees and performers. “I remember my mom telling me about a memorable moment from the festival. She said she was on her way to the washroom and ran into performer Loreena Mckennit. My mom said they had a lovely conversation, which was very down to earth, and that she would cherish that conversation for the rest of her life.” Said NLFB Executive Director, Michelle Murray. 

“For me, Northern Lights Festival Boreal is more than just a music festival; it’s a cherished tradition I’ve been part of since I was 16. I still remember those early days, lounging on the grass (before Grace Amphitheatre existed), hanging out with members of Immaculate Machine, and diving deep into music chats. This fest introduced me to incredible bands like Miracle Fortress; to this day, their album Five Roses remains one of my favourites. It’s hands-down my favourite festival, and I make it a point to attend every year. Now I get to share the magic with my daughter, making vibrant memories together.” Says NLFB’s Logistics Coordinator, Meagen Brownrigg.

Adapting to change: Dancing in the summer weather, stress-free, listening to music felt by the soul. The energy brought by the festival has never failed. With constant changes throughout the years, adaptability became a creative strength. Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world, leaving individuals longing for connection, often the effect found while experiencing music. The show must go on, leading NLFB to host a drive-in festival at the New Sudbury Mall, where attendees would stay in their cars, still getting to leave the house and listen to great music! Although it may not have been the traditional festival the community had become so familiar with, the drive-in show was another festival for the books! 

Familiar Faces: NLFB’s programming has always been at the heart of its impact. Emerging regional artists often get their first major festival gig at Northern Lights, sharing stages and workshop performances with world-renowned artists. This unique approach fosters connections and collaborations, as exemplified by famed Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers. At the time, Stan didn’t sing sea shanties, but after listening to The Friends of Fiddlers Green play them at an NLFB after-hours jam session the night before, he showed up to breakfast the next morning with a piece of paper, written on the paper were the lyrics of “Barrett’s Privateers.” Rogers was impressed by their knowledge of sea shanties and wanted to try for himself.

In 1976, teenager Eilleen Twain (recognized now as Canadian country/pop artist Shania Twain) played her first festival at NLFB. Country music artist Mary Bailey saw her performance and shortly after became her manager. Convincing Twain to take a more country route, in 1985, Bailey drove her to Nashville to introduce her to her contacts in the country music scene. A few years later, Twain signed a contract with Mercury Nashville, kicking off her journey to stardom. 

Recognizing Excellence and Contribution: Each year, NLFB honours individuals who embody the festival’s spirit through two special awards. The Jackie Washington Award celebrates creative excellence, while the Bernie Melanson Award recognizes outstanding volunteer contributions. Named after festival legends, these awards often highlight the achievements of Northern Ontarians, reinforcing the festival’s deep community roots. 

Looking Ahead: The Northern Lights Festival’s long-term goals include expanding its iconic summer festival and year-round programming, such as the Bloom Festival introduced in 2019. This year, the new ‘Teaser Stage’ at Bell Park’s Katherine Bell’s Gazebo will feature short sets from festival artists, enticing new attendees to experience the full event.