Edmonton Pride Festival faces controversy—organizers silencing voices, groups say

During last year's Pride a protest erupted. // JProcktor.com

Some members of the LGBTQ2S+ community claim the organization behind Edmonton’s Pride Festival has been “blatantly silencing” their voices. This matter arose late Thursday, when members of the city’s QTBIPOC (Queer/Trans/Two Spirit who are also Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) and LGBTIQ refugee community were denied entry to a meeting at McKernan Community League Hall hosted by the Pride Festival Society (PFS). Tensions ran high, and by the end of the night, the police were called.

The meeting’s purpose was for the PFS membership to discuss and vote on the demands brought forward by two groups from the QTBIPOC community, “as they affected the fundamental purpose and layout of the festival,” says Clayton Hitchcock, co-chair of PFS.

This comes just two months before the Edmonton Pride Festival, scheduled for June 7, and on the tails of an announcement that Edmonton Police Services, the RCMP and various military groups will not be participating in this year’s event.  

RaricaNow and Shades of Colour YEG—groups belonging to the LGBTIQ refugee community and QTIBIPOC—drafted a list of demands, asking the Festival to hold a vigil in remembrance of members of both communities who have been traumatized or lost their lives “due to systemic oppression including transphobia, racism, classism, capitalism, etc.”

Both groups have been working with Kay Donaldson, community engagement chair of PFS, since August, but when they arrived to the meeting on Thursday they were “barred from entering” by hired security on the grounds that they were not on the PFS’ member list.

Four members of RaricaNow and Shades of Colour were invited to be representatives at the meeting, but close to 30 community members showed up to offer support.

“We decided collectively and as a community that the four representatives would go to present their speeches and speak to the rest of the board—because we’ve never sat down and talked with any of these people—and give our piece because there was a very strong likelihood that no one would agree to our terms or that they might gaslight us,” says V Guzman, community engagement coordinator for Shades of Colour.

“So we asked our community to come and support us and just be present in the room. And we were never told we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the space beforehand. We sent an email to Pride Festival about this on March 26 and received no response back.”

When the groups asked why they would not be allowed into the building to offer support, a board member told them it was due to seating capacity.

To vote for PFS you have to become a member to have a vote. Anyone can become a member and the process takes up to 21 days.

“That gave us a bit of a constraint because we were only told this meeting was happening two weeks ago. So we only had 14 days to get memberships to vote,” Guzman says. “If there is a meeting that has been planned for months why weren’t we informed earlier during the multiple meetings we had? If they really cared about QTIBIPOC voices and stories they would put in the work to include us.”

Hitchcock says the meeting had 25 voting members present in a space that could house 60. He also says that the full membership is around 55 people.

“We needed to make sure the space was available if [other members] came. And that is when people started to push into the building,” he says. “It’s unclear what they were protesting …[W]e informed them that [it] was a meeting of the membership and members of the PFS should be the only ones in the meeting and they disagreed with that.”

The situation intensified when the PFS called the police.

“There was no violence, but some people did get pushed,” Hitchcock says. “I wouldn’t guess as to whether it was intentional or not. It was somewhat chaotic when they all came in.”

Hitchcock says the police were called due to safety concerns involving other groups—including a group for disabled youth—that were renting the space as well.

“The main concern was access and exit capabilities for those groups. Several of the protest groups were standing on and blocking the stairs, but for me personally, the situation was heated and I was fearful of escalation,” he says. “In contacting EPS—it wasn’t for them to come and remove these people; we just wanted someone to be there in case things did escalate.”

However, Guzman says there were no children in the building at the time Shades of Colour and RaricaNow showed up.

“One of the organizers of that called us earlier in the day and said they weren’t going to be in the building when we were there,” Guzman says. “There were no children, so whoever called the police lied to them. It was very strange because there was excuse after excuse and at some point all of the members just left.”

The meeting was eventually moved to a second location, the private office of PFS in the Telus Phone Museum. Due to the fact that not all the voting members were notified of the new location—and a few members were locked out—the membership felt that the meeting was not official and should not go forward, and so the meeting technically never happened.

For representative of RaricaNow, Adebayo Quinitiiti, it was all a very “painful experience.”

“I am a person who has [a] phobia with police, [and] who survived in Uganda after the police raided a Pride event. The Edmonton Pride Festival calling police on us—when we had two refugees who wanted to share their stories and find out how Edmonton Pride Festival can better support immigrants and LGBTQ refugees who are facing deportation and homelessness—to me is a betrayal,” Quinitiiti says.

Adebayo Quinitiiti during last year’s Pride. // JProcktor.com

Members of both groups were upset that a formal vote to approve the requested vigil was included on the agenda, when they felt like it didn’t seem like a voting matter.

“We’ve lost a lot of people who have been stoned to death for being LGBTQ,” Quinitiiti says. “We asked Pride Festival to hold a vigil for them and they have to vote on that—really? I can’t see where the humanity is in that. I’m trying to really figure this out but it’s very painful and shameful to Edmonton Pride Festival.”

Despite the reaction from the members of RaricaNow and Shades of Colour who were barred from the meeting, Hitchcock seems optimistic that all members of Edmonton’s LGBTQ2S+ community will be able to work together in the future.

“There are some things we have incorporated to the festival this year based on the original demands in regard to having more space on the festival for POC groups within our community,” Hitchcock says. “As unfortunate as this situation is, it provides another aspect to a conversation that is ongoing between the community. I speak for myself and other people on the board in saying that we want to work towards unity. It’s part of our mission statement: to unify our community. But that’s not something that just happens. It takes a lot of work.”

EPS was not available for comment at the time this article was published.

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