ACT News

Canberra culture hits street for multicultural festival party

Canberra's multicultural festival, arguably the ACT's best block party, has proved for the 34th year in succession that it can bring residents together like nothing else.

On Sunday, Scottish genealogy rubbed shoulders with Right to Life ACT; Hawaiian music and Sri Lankan cuisine went cheek by jowl and a knight in shining armour took time out from pamphlet duty to chat to naval ratings demonstrating their rigid inflatable.

Ben Norman, aka Lord Otto Sexburger, samples some of the food at the Canberra multicultural festival.
Ben Norman, aka Lord Otto Sexburger, samples some of the food at the Canberra multicultural festival. Photo: Matt Bedford

Further down the way, the smell of burnt offerings on a barbecue wafted on high.

"Is this the Ocker stand?" I asked a man wearing an "I love Australia" T-shirt and cooking what appeared to be a cross between rissoles and skinless sausages.

"No," he said, "these are for the Egyptian stall."

The knight was one of the Canberra's 170 "Scadians", the name for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA has been in existence for 50 years, in Canberra for 30 and at the festival for the past five years.


Baroness Anne de Tournai, aka Brigid Costell, said the society was rooted in the "modern Middle Ages"; an era of fable in which all women were ladies (not a wench in sight), sanitation excellent and no blood ever spilt.

Franco Papandrea, an adjunct professor at the University of Canberra and local head of the Dante Alighieri Society, said the festival, which was expected to equal last year's 250,000-strong turnout, worked well because of the deep community roots.

He said when the Carnell government relaunched the event as the week-long National Multicultural Festival in 1997, it had picked up the Canberra Festival and Canberra Birthday Festival as well.

"The community involvement [by organisations not strictly multicultural in nature] goes back to the original brief."

Mr Papandrea, a member of the board appointed by former chief minister Kate Carnell to oversee the changes, said his society had been a part of the festival since 1981.

The society, which promotes Italian language and culture, was founded in Italy in 1889.

Society members are planning a big year, both here and elsewhere, to mark that if the author of Divine Comedy, who famously peopled hell, purgatory and heaven, had taken better care of himself, he might now be celebrating his 750th birthday.

The festival's most tangible characteristic was the picture of multicultural harmony and gastronomic delight made possible by having halal food from Iran, deep fried, spiral cut "chips on a stick" and African, Eurasian and oriental delights too numerous to list.

However, hidden behind the smiles were darker realities.

Many of the citizens of the world who have come to Canberra, such as Afghan Hazara community member Hasmat Shafaq, have walked a hard road.

A persecuted but substantial, minority group in Afghanistan, the Hazara built the 1500-year-old giant Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Mr Shafaq, who sought refuge in 2000 and works as a self-employed "old world" carpenter using centuries-old skills he was taught as a youth, said the Hazara had returned to the festival for the third time.

"We want to tell the true story of Afghanistan and how our people are being persecuted," he said. "History has become politicised and our land is being taken from us."