Leaving Edmonton—formerly local artists reflect on leaving town for greener pastures
The man who made the “Still in Edmonton” T-Shirts left the city last October. Shortly before heading to Saskatchewan, Brandon Webber—who had been slapping the irreverent phrase on t-shirts for a few years prior to the move—did an interview with the CBC, where he claimed that many Edmontonians wanted to leave the city. Sometimes, it’s because they weren’t actually born here.
Artists in Edmonton have a bit of a different relationship with the phrase, since every time a musician, artist, filmmaker, actor, etc. leaves for Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver, it leaves a bit of a hole in the artistic fabric of the town.
Daze Magazine asked a few of these creatives if, at the end of the day, not being “Still in Edmonton” was worth it, and how moving away changed them. At the end is a representative from the Edmonton Arts Council, providing his perspective.
Christian Hansen, musician, Toronto
For Christian Hansen—who made good in the city around 2009 with his then band’s local hit album Power Leopard—the notion that artists leave town for greener pastures is one he’s heard a lot over the years. In 2011, he and his partner Molly left town for Toronto, so they’re well acquainted with it.
The move turned out to be a pretty big change. It taught Hansen that—to have a career, or even just a side hustle, in a creative field—relationships are important. You need to find the people to help you, and the people you want to help. They had that in Edmonton, Hansen says. When they got to Toronto, that infrastructure wasn’t there, and they had to rebuild it almost from the ground up.
“No one cared about anything we had done, really,” he says. “There was a whole emotional impact of realizing that too. It puts you back to square one. You have to be the new kid and really put yourself out there.”
It took time, but Hansen managed to rebuild. They have a bigger community of artists and collaborators, but their fan base is still a work in progress. The culture in Toronto is also a bit different. Audiences come to a show, then leave maybe halfway through to see another one—there’s just so much going on.
“I’m still figuring out how to get people out, and make people care in a city where there’s multiple things going on every single night.”
Hansen doesn’t regret the decision to move, not that it was made with like an “’aw fuck, we gotta get out of Edmonton.’” The city was good to them—moving just seemed like the right call.
Mitch Holtby, musician, Montreal
For Montreal-based hip hop artist Mitch Holtby—who people in Edmonton will know as Mitchmatic—moving from Edmonton presented an exciting new challenge for his career.
“I wanted to be in a different environment and have to respond to different stimuli I was unaware of,” he says.
Yet he has to admit that just by size alone, Montreal has more opportunities for an artist.
“Montreal has more distinct pockets than Edmonton,” Holtby says. “Edmonton feels like it’s all one mass which is kind of a good thing because it’s very friendly. I would like to think that Montreal is a bit more challenging and that’s kind of why I moved.”
Holtby is currently working on new music—which will have “elements of hip hop, but not entirely”—but there’s a high chance it will come out under a different moniker. Mitchmatic was from his past life when he lived in Edmonton spitting rhymes for, at the time, a small hip hop scene.
“Mitchmatic was a name I started with when I was 17 or 18, and some of the songs I made in the beginning of that, I just don’t really connect with anymore. I’d like to have a name that represents me more for where I’m at now,” Holtby says.
Looking back on his time in Edmonton, Holtby says the city does do a good job of supporting artists, but the size of the city and its locale will always result in having musicians leave for bigger opportunities and challenges.
“I definitely think that people within those [government] organizations try very hard to create good environments for music,” he says. “I wouldn’t place any blame on any of them. Honestly, it’s just the nature of where the city’s located and the size of the city.”
Megan Gnanasihamany, visual artist, Montreal
Last September, Megan Gnanasihamany and a friend drove to Montreal with all of their stuff packed into a van. The former Edmonton artist had visited Montreal a few times before, and it was one of the few places in Canada where they knew enough people to be comfortable—plus it was affordable. But the real impetus for moving was when many of their friends started moving away for grad school or for relationships.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know that I want to live here and continue trying to make work after growing up here, and going to school here—knowing so many of the people and so many of the opportunities—I don’t know if I want to keep trying at that without the people who made it possible,’” they said.
While in Edmonton, Gnanasihamany had ended up working with many of the people they had wanted to work with, and taken on, perhaps, too many collaborative roles—board member, volunteer, curator—and they wanted to focus on their individual practise. While these problems aren’t endemic to Edmonton, the city doesn’t offer as many different opportunities for artists as other larger centres. Not that there aren’t creatives doing great work in Alberta’s capital, they say, but the city also needs to support its artists a bit more.
“I was really proud of the work that I was doing with people, and of the work people put into the arts community, and the work that artists run centres do, the work that people do independently. I think there are so many great things going on, but it always feels like you’re pushing against the tide a little bit.”
Some of it also just came down to needing to break themselves of the habits they developed in town—they also know fewer people and have more solo time to work on their art.
The decision to move to Montreal was a good one, they say, but people in Edmonton took it kind of hard. People in the arts community asked Gnanasihamany how they could care about the scene if they were willing to leave it—Gnanasihamany’s answer was that they weren’t going to develop if they stayed in the same place.
It’s normal for people who grew up in Edmonton to want to leave one day—but Gnanasihamany hopes people in the city’s art community will come back to it, and the people who stay behind keep it stable and welcoming so people will want to return to it.
“Because I do know people who have left and then returned, because it’s the place that they feel that sense of warmth and community and closeness with other people making art,” they say.
Vivek Shraya recorded her first album in 2002 in Edmonton and then moved to Toronto the next year. It was a time, she says, when Canadian artists pretty much had to move out East to make a living. She had heard it from so many people: If you wanted to be a serious musician, you had to be in Toronto.
But that was easier said than done for Shraya—Toronto, for all its creative infrastructure, was a hard nut to crack. The scene was insular and, even 15 years later, that feeling hasn’t changed much, she says.
In a way, Shraya kind of regrets leaving Edmonton too soon—she feels like she could have developed a larger following there before breaking out into the big city.
“I found music a very, very hard industry to break into in the city, and it was because I wasn’t able to make music happen the way I wanted in my first eight years [or] seven years of being in Toronto that I ended up diversifying and moving to other forms of media,” she says.
That said, she thinks she grew into a healthier person by living in Toronto.
“Even though I feel like leaving for me was a form of survival, there has been a part of me that has definitely felt guilty about leaving. Sometimes I feel like leaving a smaller city is the easy thing to do … and I just have so much respect for the people who stay, and I have so much respect for the people that have tried to make a city like Edmonton more livable, more … enjoyable,” she says.
“So I think for me a big part of coming back to Alberta is—I don’t want to say from a place of guilt—but from a place of this desire of wanting to do some of that kind of work that I didn’t do when I just abandoned ship, so to speak.”
Stephen Williams, Edmonton Arts Council (EAC), still in Edmonton
“I’ve been around the block enough to have heard this refrain at least a few times from this side of the table,” says Stephan Williams, director of grants, awards and support programs with the EAC.
Williams believes there are anecdotal stories about artists leaving Edmonton, but that it’s hardly localized to the city. Artists get pushed out of Vancouver because the rent is so high, says Williams, who was a musician in Edmonton back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Anyway, he says, there’s a counter narrative of people who have been making art in the city for decades—he lists Captain Tractor as an example.
The EAC doesn’t keep tabs on the comings and goings of artists in the city—it would be pretty weird if they did—and it doesn’t have any grants specifically developed to retain artistic talent in the city, but last year, the EAC invested close to $1.1 million in individual artists across disciplines, and it invests around $10 million in the arts community and festival community every year.
“I can say that the demand for our individual artists programs … there’s certainly no lacking of demand,” Williams says.
It’s also not such a bad thing when bands leave town, he says—Edmonton has fostered some great talent in the past.
“I would hate to think that we were so protective that we wouldn’t want people to go. Part of what we do is nurture Edmonton artists here so they are successful in the rest of the world. We have a history … of nurturing some excellent Canadian talent that is proudly from Edmonton.”
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