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Arwen Helene: Environmentalism ‘part of our ethos’ at Winnipeg Folk Festival

Arwen Helene, production manager of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, says environmentalism ‘is part of our ethos’

Robert Tinker/The Globe and Mail

With the series Applause, Please, The Globe and Mail recognizes the efforts of dedicated citizens and those behind the scenes who make a difference in arts and cultural programs and institutions.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival just won a major award, and now it's talking trash.

What the festival is boastful about are its environmental initiatives, which were deemed to be industry-leading last month at the International Folk Music Awards in Kansas City, where the annual Manitoba event was awarded the second-annual Clearwater Award. The award is named after the Clearwater Festival, a long-running environmentally friendly folk festival established by Pete Seeger held each summer on the bank of Hudson River in upstate New York.

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Music fans who flock to Winnipeg's Birds Hill Provincial Park for four days in July arrive to a fully formed little city of stages, water stations, vendors and portable outhouses. What attendees might not know is that it took four weeks to build the site and three more to tear it all down. The person in charge at Winnipeg Folk is Arwen Helene, the festival's long-time production manager, whose views on waste are strongly of the "want not" kind.

"Environmentalism has always been a core part of what we do," says Helene, who's been with the festival for nearly 25 years. "It's not just producing music. It's what kind of community are we creating, how are we treating each other and how are we treating the earth we're sharing for this time together. It's part of our ethos. Leave no trace."

Leaving no trace has to do with the zero-waste goals common among folk festivals. But it wasn't always that way.

Everybody remembers the three days of peace and music at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969, but nobody talks about the fourth day of garbage left everywhere, far as you could see.

Nothing much was different in 1994, at the Woodstock reprise at Winston Farm in Saugerties, N.Y. A week after that festival, it was reported that more than half of the estimated 1,400 tonnes of garbage produced at the concert was still strewn in the muck.

Times have changed.

Asked about specific practices at Winnipeg Folk, Helene talks about the late nineties, when the kitchen scraps from meals served to festival volunteers were composted. It was a baby step toward a festival-wide program that composted 4,500 kilograms a decade ago and 24,000 kilograms in 2017.

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"We've blazed the trail," Helene says. "And every year we want to do better."

Testifying on the festival's behalf is Richard Flohil, a veteran music publicist and promoter who has been attending four or five Canadian folk festivals each summer since the sixties. "It's the cleanest site you'll ever see. It's spotless, and the clean-up staff has very little do."

Chalk one up for the modern Aquarians, then. Getting themselves back to the garden, one compost load at a time.

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