Christine Shellska is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Communication, Media and Film, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her research involves studying the rhetorical strategies employed by the Intelligent Design Creationism movement, and her areas of focus include history, philosophy and sociology of science, and rhetoric. Among other involvement in the secular community, she is the first Canadian to be elected to the Board of Directors for the American Humanist Association, and a regular co-host on the Calgary-based Legion of Reason podcast.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Recently, the LGBTQ+ community held its pride parade in Calgary. You are a multi-generational Calgarian. How do events like this make you feel?
Christine M. Shellska: Calgary has grown to become very diverse. Not only have our industries, educational institutions, and quality of life attracted people from around the world, but we welcome about 10,000 immigrants every year. As a happy consequence, the number of cultural events held here have increased, most of which centre around music, dance, art, and of course, delicious ethnic food and (frequently intoxicating) beverages.
Calgary’s Pride movement started in 1990 with about 100 marchers, many of whom wore masks to protect their identities. One year later, Pride week was declared an official civic event by Mayor Al Duerr, but the parade only attracted about 400 attendees. In 2016,, there were 140 parade entries, about 4000 participants, and about 60,000 attendees. This year, Calgary Pride reported that there were 175 parade entries, about 5000 participants, and about 65,000 attendees.
To give you a bit of context, the annual parade that kicks off the Calgary Stampede is regarded as one of the world’s largest, with 2017 attendance estimated at 275,000. This year’s martials were Chiefs of the Treaty 7 Nations, and it featured over 150 western-themed entries, including 30 marching bands, 40 floats, 750 horses and 4,000 participants. Following the Stampede parade, Pride is by far our most popular and well-attended.
Because we have long been well-known for the Stampede, the history of which spans over 100 years, I think some hold the perception that Calgary, often referred to as “Cowtown,” is a bit of a backwards hick-town. Alberta’s reputation for its high population of religious fundamentalists, some of whom hold very bigoted attitudes, doesn’t contribute positively to this image. Stampede Week features many western-oriented exhibits and events, but it also features world-class artists and musicians, a large fairground, strange and novel foods like scorpion pizza, and a substantial amount of partying at almost every drinking establishment in town, as well as some that are erected solely for the festivities.
Stampede Week, like Pride, is an opportunity for Calgarians to reflect on our history – to acknowledge the reality of past transgressions, and to celebrate hard-earned rights won – to show our civic pride, and to leverage the spirit of these events to unite as a city. Cultural events that celebrate ethnic arts and food reflect our diversity, encourage community among new Canadians, and welcome Calgarians to share aspects of our friends’ and neighbours’ cultures. And, perhaps most importantly, during rather a humourless time in our global history, many of our events are just a good excuse to have fun, like our yearly Zombie walk and 4-20 gathering at City Hall.
Unfortunately, this year’s Pride parade sparked off a great deal of controversy when the organizers announced that they would not permit the Calgary Police Service to participate in uniform. Within my personal sphere, when the Centre for Inquiry (CFI) Calgary announced its decision to withdraw their support, after a lengthy process that included input from members of both CFI and the LGBTQ+ community, a nation-wide shitstorm arose on social media. Our Executive Director, whom we interviewed on the Legion of Reason podcast, was the target of much verbal abuse, resulting in her resignation.
Having said that, there were many who supported CFI Calgary’s decision, including several members of the LGBTQ+ community. There were also many thoughtful contributions, which resulted in some productive dialogue. However, the voices of cis-gendered people (including me) soon came to dominate the dialogue, most of whom reside outside of Calgary and are largely unaware of the history of the relationship between the CPS and our LGBTQ+ community. By most accounts from LGBTQ+ Calgarians, the Pride parade organizers did not consult the broader community. The proposal was presented Voices – Calgary’s Coalition of Two-Spirit & Racialized lgbtqia+, a small, local advocacy group inspired by BLM, founded in 2016. Their position is summarized by Carrie Tait of The Globe and Mail:
Some two-spirit people – an umbrella term to describe and used by some, but not all, individuals who are Indigenous and identify as LGBTQ or elsewhere on the gender and sexual spectrums – feel their white counterparts are leaving them and people of colour behind. The broader LGBTQ community has made significant gains in the quest for equality, thanks to years of fighting for rights. But some members of the LGBTQ community who are not white feel overlooked because, while homophobia may be dissipating, they may still be on society’s social and economic margins because of race.
Pride announced, “We acknowledge the historical oppression and institutionalized racism faced by queer/trans people of colour and Indigenous persons, and the potentially negative association with weapons, uniforms and other symbols of law enforcement.”
While the usual, trite accusation that “You need to educate yourself!” was tossed around in its various instantiations on social media, the argument is clear. Few, if any, CFI Calgary members would deny these claims. What many objected to, however, was the method, because of its exclusion of uniformed officers, many of whom are non-white and LGBTQ+. Summing up the sentiment, in response to Pride’s statement, “We welcome the participation of Calgary Police Services, and other law enforcement agencies in a manner that demonstrates allyship and understanding,” Kelly McParland of the National Post observed, “Just as long as they do their best to hide their identity, like gays used to do.”
The CPS agreed to respect the Pride organizers’ decision, from what I understand, reluctantly. Even our mayor, Naheed Nenshi, expressed his disappointment in the decision.
Jacobsen: When you look at some of the particulars of the event, what were notable highlights for you?
Shellska: Oddly, Calgary’s Pride Week does not coincide with Pride Month, which is widely recognized as June, to commemorate the Stonewall riots. The Pride parade held in early September concludes Pride Week, followed by Pride in the Park, a family-friendly event that features live entertainment, a marketplace, and a beer garden.
In recent years, highlights of Pride Week include the raising of the Pride flag at City Hall, the Calgary Tower’s light display, rainbow sidewalks (this year featuring a sidewalk representing the transgender flag colours), public transit signage, and countless other shows of support by individuals, local businesses, and corporations.
Jacobsen: In reflection on the progressive outlook, one of progression to greater inclusion in spite of, usually religious, attempts to narrow the landscape of people’s self-identification and expression. How has the environment changed for the LBGTQ+ community? What are some notable examples of this?
Shellska: Since I’m cis-gendered, I really can’t speak to this personally. The best I can try to do is relay my personal observations. Growing up, my best friend in high school was gay, and he certainly wasn’t socially open about it, although his family knew. Some of his family members were bigoted and occasionally rude, especially his grandmother, who was clearly a product of a different era. Despite her ignorance, she did love my friend in her way. Fortunately, his mother was very supportive.
For awhile, he had a partner who adamantly denied being gay. He would make very offensive comments about gays, and he drew on his Italian heritage to present a macho, tough-guy façade. In hindsight, he reminds me very much of what some refer to as “self-loathing” gays who adamantly endorse “family values” and the like. I think he was Catholic; my friend was also openly atheist, so we shared that bond in common as well as others (we are both only children and introverts). The partner was clearly jealous of our friendship, and he was horrible to me. My friend later confided that he was being physically abused. Sadly, this was the beginning of a pattern of long-term, abusive relationships for him.
Maybe things would have been different for both of them if society had been more accepting of LGBTQ+ people back then. Then again, my friend’s abusive father passed away from alcohol-related illness when he was young. Clearly, being LGBTQ+ does nothing to shield one from the psychological consequences of familial violence, nor being the victim of domestic abuse. Perhaps the self-loathing partner might have fared better if he’d been spared a religious upbringing that focused upon guilt, shame and suffering. I hope he is living the best, most honest life he can.
Jacobsen: For sexual minorities, what do you see as the modern battleground for greater freedom and acceptance in socio-cultural and political life in Calgary?
Shellska: I’m happy to see that things have changed here: it is true that “the broader LGBTQ community has made significant gains in the quest for equality.” My daughter is a young adult now; several of her friends have comfortably inhabited various gender identities and/or openly expressed their sexual orientations since high school. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005, and it is commonplace to see same-sex couples strolling the streets holding hands in my community. This year, a bill was passed to include gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation, in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
In my observation, my daughter’s generation doesn’t much care about gender identity, sexual orientation, or race, when it comes to social acceptance of their peers, possibly because of a general trend toward irreligion and the consequent rejection of the bigotry and prejudices that often accompany it. That’s a good thing, worth celebrating. However, it’s important that her generation understand that minority rights were hard-earned, and this is why so many of our cultural events, like Pride, are important. The people who fought for those rights deserved to be recognized and honoured.
While LGBTQ+ people have successfully challenged legislation, there still remain social stigmas that need to be overcome, religiously-based and otherwise. I think that Voices is correct in asserting their identity, and reclaiming their history of two-spirited people, who were revered and not marginalized in many First Nations’ cultures. I think they’re correct in asserting the historical cultures and rights of non-white LGBTQ+ people; even if those rights are legally recognized, in many communities across Canada, some police officers continue to abuse their authority and enact violence against marginalized groups. I think they’re correct in pointing out the historical and present failures of authorities, of which there are many. Unquestionably, these stories need to be told.
But from what I’ve heard from my friends in the broader LGBTQ+ community, the CPS are largely regarded as allies, having earned trust over many years by protecting their rights as individuals (including ethnic minorities), business owners, etc.
Singling out the CPS was interpreted by many as rejecting allies by denying their identity. This is very much an American strategy that doesn’t necessarily align with Canadian issues and values. It raises questions about groups that were not excluded. For example, if we take up the premise that certain groups should be excluded, it is simply outrageous to include many Christian groups, given the history of residential schools, who participated in what the Truth and Reconciliation Council deemed “cultural genocide.” Not to mention their historical treatment of LGBTQ+ people.
There also seems to be an underlying assumption that non-whites accept LGBTQ+ people, and we know this is simply not the case. Many cultures around the globe are notoriously misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, etc.
I admit that I find it very distasteful when Canadians jump on American bandwagons with no regard to our unique context, as if we’re affected by the same issues. Granted, we share very many similarities, and some of their issues are ours as well. But racism and LGBTQ+ bigotry are not uniquely American nor Canadian issues. They are global issues that require culturally-appropriate strategies.
Clearly Calgary is merely a microcosm of a broader movement. Police have been disinvited to Pride parades across the US, and now Canada. Protests that include disrupting vehicular and even air traffic have sprung up across North America and Europe. More recently, some protests have erupted into violence. These events have alienated many who are allies or potential allies, and have been responded to by violent and overtly racist groups who were marginalized long ago, and should have remained so. I don’t want to see that happen here. We don’t need to flock like a bunch of lemmings to American “solutions.” On the global stage, Canada is respected as a humanitarian country. We can do better.
What if Voices were to propose something along the lines of a March Against Racism, or something like that, and invite Pride as an honoured guest? As a new initiative, the organizers could unproblematically choose who they wanted to exclude and include, thus setting their own precedent. It would be more inclusive in the sense that it would support the right of all non-whites, not just LGBTQ+ non-whites. And it would be a chance to educate and foster community among Calgary’s multiple cultures. I think this is something most Calgarians would support, even if it meant some of us, even most of us, were excluded. Not only would it be a contribution to our civic events, it could provide an alternative approach that could serve as a model for other communities facing similar issues.
Jacobsen: What was the turnout for the uniform event? Why was this an important event to hold?
Shellska: The Unity in Uniform was organized as a Pride alternative event by Gregory John and Jim Heaton, in response to the exclusion of the CPS, to “show the community that there’s another part of the community that is in support of the police [and] other people in uniform,” including firefighters and EMS professionals. The event was important to many members and groups representing the broader LGBTQ+ community, including Morley Pride and the Drag community.
I hadn’t intended to go, because I felt there were others far more deserving to attend the limited-seating event. But I wanted to contribute something positive to both communities, especially given the division amongst CFI Calgary internally, as well as with other Canadian branches. When I pitched the idea, several individual members of CFI Calgary offered to support a crowdfunder to contribute toward the evening’s festivities. Greg kindly thanked me for my offer but felt it was improper to accept a contribution of this nature, and instead encouraged us to donate to Officer Tad Milmine’s “Bullying Ends Here” campaign, located here: https://www.bullyingendshere.ca/.
When I explained why I wanted to do the crowdfunder, Greg was saddened to learn how the decision impacted CFI, especially the Executive Director. He placed me on his guest list, and when we met I extended my hand, to which he responded, “Sorry, I only do hugs.” Exactly what I hoped he’d say!
The event was very well attended, and represented by many groups and individuals, including some gay CFI members. It was an honour to attend the inaugural Unity in Uniform event, and I met several inspirational leaders of the LGBTQ+ community, including police officers. The speeches delivered by the organizers and other leaders focused on inclusivity and widely stirred the audience’s emotions. Despite the controversy, attendees were encouraged to participate in the Pride parade. Many officers showed up out of uniform, carrying the CPS Pride banner, graciously accepting the decision and taking the higher road.
Jacobsen: Was there any backlash to the uniform event, whether online or with protestors of the event?
Shellska: When I found out about the Unity in Uniform and shared it on facebook, I rather harshly pointed out that those who were shouting, “Educate yourself!” ought to do the same. There were some interesting exchanges, but the discussion on the general principle of excluding police officers continued in other posts, for several days after Pride Week.
I can’t confirm whether there was any backlash toward the Unity in Uniform event, but I highly doubt it. It seemed clear that the event represented the views of the broader LGBTQ+ community, the strength of their relationship with the CPS, and the strong overlap of the two communities. Certainly there was no physical presence of protestors, and there were, to my knowledge, no notable public criticisms of the event.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time again, Christine.
Shellska: Thank you again too! I’m looking forward to future discussions.