Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts: Recognition where it is overdue
by Haseena Manek
Whose are the stories we rarely hear? Who do we owe but never praise? The marginalized and the oppressed. The Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts was built on the premise that workers and artists share a common struggle for social justice.
The first ever Min Sook Lee Labour Arts Awards, organized by Mayworks, was an opportunity to recognize those in the labour arts community who have not only lived this struggle, but who are also working to tell these stories.
Min Sook Lee, recipient of the award for Outstanding Contribution to Labour Arts, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and former Director of Mayworks. “Arts is the consciousness of the people,” says Lee “and working class culture is often erased or diminished or disappeared or manipulated by the powers that be.”
One of the strategies used to control cultural representation is funding for arts programs and Mayworks recently lost its federal funding. “People who create media, social justice, any kind of media that is critical of the policies of our federal government, are losing their funding,” continues Lee.
“This celebration is a very good way to come together, support each other, provide the funding,” remarked MP Olivia Chow, who was in attendance, “then we can take on any government that wants to silence the voices of the workers.”
Frank Saptel, recipient of the Labour Activist Award is the founder and a current board member of the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (or CLiFF), which was held in Toronto the same weekend as the Labour Arts Awards. “Every one of you is a worker,” said Saptel, addressing the audience, “every one of you has a story to tell.”
Carolyn Egan, president of the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council accepted the Labour Union Award on behalf of the council, which was being recognised for its work with workers at Infinity Rubber in Toronto and Rio Tinto in Aylmer, Quebec.
Vincent Pietropaolo, recipient of the Artist Award, is a documentary photographer whose work began in his own community in the 1970s, photographing worksites and factories. “We see very few photographs of working class cultures,” says Pietropaolo, “the ones that we do see are actually produced by corporate culture, so it’s their view of the working class, I think its important for people to write their own stories.”
While accepting his award, Pietropaolo shared a story of when he and his father, an Italian immigrant and construction worker, once took a drive around the city. His father was able to point out all the buildings he hauled bricks for, poured cement for – all the buildings he helped to build.
It was workers who built this city and who continue to build it, but they are rarely recognised for it. An organization like Mayworks is able to not only showcase, but also to celebrate these workers and their stories. It helps tell the truths of our culture, our society and our history. Mayworks celebrates the contributions of workers, of artists and of workers who are artists.
“Mayworks is vital,” says Lee, “as are all the other organizations that are populous driven, that reflect reality, that don’t reflect an elitist, distorted version of reality. There’s art that can numb you, art that can make you feel bad about your own life, and then there’s art that can empower you, reflect who you are back to your own community […] and art is such a powerful tool in all those respects and I think Mayworks understands that power and we should never lose that.”