A resident from Six Nations, Ont., the First Nations reserve where a U.S.-based event company held a controversial lantern festival last weekend, says local laws around land use are different than other jurisdictions and need to be respected.
“These organizers need to understand Indigenous lands are not to be seen as a wasteland [where] our territories and the safety of our people don’t matter,” Rick Monture, who is Mohawk with the Turtle clan, told CBC Hamilton on Thursday.
The Lights Festival was held on a farm in Six Nations on Aug. 20, despite community concerns around permissions and safety. Many ticket holders, some who came from more than 100 kilometres away, were turned back by Six Nations police, while others were able to reach the property and release lanterns.
Monture said while some municipalities like Toronto have banned sky lanterns, Six Nations is among reserves that don’t have the same laws, which “creates a loophole” for event organizers.
“They don’t care if it causes any potential harm or threat to the community … I would put the onus squarely on the event organizers,” said Monture, who is also a McMaster University associate professor in the departments of English, cultural and Indigenous studies.
Following calls from many ticket holders for a refund and fuller explanation, the festival’s organizer told CBC Hamilton this week it relied on the venue to ensure last weekend’s event could move forward.
“We did everything that the venue had told us to do,” said Drew Dunn, a manager with U.S.-based Viive Events.
The event, held on the same property in 2019, had prompted concerns from Six Nations community members before it took place again this year. Six Nations police, who called the event “unauthorized,” blocked the area and, according to one neighbour, it turned into “mayhem.”
“They said they were taking care of it,” Dunn said of the property owner. “I’m the first to admit it did not go how we wanted it to go.”
CBC has been unable to reach the property owner, and Dunn has not provided more information about the venue.
How the night unfolded
Viive Events is the Utah-based company behind the The Lights Festival, where people light a lantern and let it fly through the sky.
Festivals take place across the U.S. and Canada, and have triggered concerns before. The Six Nations event, marketed as taking place in the Toronto area on Aug. 20, was organized remotely, Dunn said.
The company held the event on private property, the Johnson Farm.
The First Nations reserve is also home to the the largest Carolinian forest in southern Ontario.
Terri Monture lives next to the farm and described a scene of “mayhem” Saturday night — darkened roads lined with cars, with people trying to get to the location despite police blocking it off.
She said she spoke to at least one person who wasn’t aware the area was a reserve. She told them they weren’t supposed to be there and “our band council and our hereditary council have condemned [the event].”
At least one formal letter from the community that was signed by Mark Hill, chief of the elected council, was sent to organizers before the event, saying it was too dangerous to release lanterns and that organizers had no authority to do so.
When asked if Viive Events had made any contact with the elected council or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC) — the traditional, hereditary leaders on the reserve — Dunn said he wasn’t sure and needed to double check.
The HCCC declined to comment.
While there was an announcement from organizers on the day of the event asking the roughly 5,000 ticket holders not to fly the lanterns, some floated through the sky Saturday night.
Others were turned away by Six Nations police, who said this week it was investigating and may lay charges.
Dunn said the organizers didn’t know police had arrived at the event and were turning people away. He said the company couldn’t get in contact with police, which he said was the reason for their delay with a public statement. The company posted a note online Sunday evening apologizing “for any confusion and inconvenience.”
“We were confused as participants … no one would talk to me,” Dunn said, adding he hadn’t heard about any potential charges by police.
Six Nations police didn’t respond to questions from CBC Hamilton.
Event company says it follows ‘correct protocols’
In a statement released Tuesday, Hill said the event represented “a callous disregard for the safety and well-being of the people of Six Nations.”
One family had trouble driving to a relative’s wake because of traffic from the event, he said.
“It is unacceptable that outside organizations think they can exploit our sovereignty for their own benefit by hosting events on the territory that have little to no benefit to our community,” he wrote.
Rick Monture said he was particularly upset by one part of the organizers’ Sunday statement, which said they were happy for those who got to release their lanterns.
They were essentially saying “good for you people for disobeying the police and threatening the lives and well-being of people in the community,” Monture said.
When Dunn was asked about both community and ticket-holder concerns, he said there has never been a single fire throughout the five years the event has been in operation.
The company goes through “all the correct protocols,” he added.
“Not everyone loves the event, that’s just like anything in life … that’s part of doing a special event,” Dunn said.
“People don’t realize the thousands of people that are going there because they’ve lost a loved one or they’re starting to do a job … that’s what we give to people.”
He said the venue itself is private property and they can host an event when they want. He also said the event went well when it took place there in 2019.
Terri Monture previously told CBC that event raised some concerns.
Organizers issuing limited refunds
Dunn said Viive is working with customers to issue refunds to some with tickets, but not all.
“When a musician goes on tour and the artist loses their voice, they don’t refund everyone, they reschedule,” Dunn said.
The company has 52 complaints registered with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), many of them around accessing refunds and or events not taking place.
“The consumers reach out to the business for refunds and are unsuccessful in reaching them,” the website says.
However, Dunn said, “We’re not here to steal money, we’re not here to be a scam, we’re here to bring an awesome event to people.”
The festival’s frequently asked questions section says tickets are non-refundable unless the customer opts for the Refund Protection Plan.
The other chance at getting a refund is if the event is cancelled and a new date isn’t set within 90 days of the original event.
Dunn said Viive hopes to have another Ontario event by October, but said it won’t take place at the Johnson Farm.
Instead, it will be in a municipality that supports the event, he said.
“We are working day and night to find another venue to do it the right way so these people can experience what a cool event it is.”