Brown, Black, and Fierce

This article originally appeared in Afropunk on November 6, 2015.

There’s a sore spot for many IPOC (Indigenous, People of Colour) in Canada. While outsiders have long looked at the country as being an inclusive and welcoming nation – a reputation that was unraveled by the fear-mongering that overshadowed the last Federal election – there has been a continuous and deliberate attempt at systematically erasing Canada’s dark history in order to preserve it’s image. Schools offer watered down lessons on the contribution and stories of IPOC, if any at all, leaving a substantial void on a population that has grown more and more unaware of significant parts of the country’s past.

With the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluding this past June – a report that documented Canada’s horrendous abuse and mistreatment of First Nations people – it seemed like the start at a real attempt to bring parts of Canada’s history out from under the rug; many IPOC, however, feel like the progress has been much too slow, and the effects way heavy on those same marginalized groups on a local level.

“As racialized peoples, and as queer folks, all of us organizers have struggled to make ourselves small enough, palatable enough, and quiet enough for our own survival in [Edmonton],” says Ruby Diaz Smith, a founding member of Brown, Black, and Fierce – a group dedicated to creating a safe space and open dialogue for IPOC, with an emphasis on queer, trans, gender diverse, and two-spirit communities. Along with Alex Felicitas, Leila Sidi, Jenni Roberts and Aurélie Lesueur, this small project has struck a chord amongst a demographic that feels grossly underrepresented in their city.

“We have all had to swallow our pride one too many times”, adds Smith. “We have all had to cater to white fragility, and create art, music, and resistance for white consumption. We need this change to be inclusive for the complexities of our identities; we need this change for our survival.”

“From my experience, many people here are quick to either think of racism as something that ended with the civil rights movement, or as something that only happens in the US.”
– Ruby Diaz Smith

According to the last official long-form census – a practice that was stopped in 2010 by former Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper – visible minorities made up 30% of the population in Edmonton, while Indigenous people accounted for about 5%. This demographics’ presence in the city’s arts, music, and literary scenes is significantly less and, depending on the scene, run the risk of being “tokenized”.

“Without a ‘hub’, it’s hard to see other people like us on a daily basis,” says Smith, “and when we do, many of us have been subconsciously taught to not acknowledge each other, or to not bring up any issues that may ‘rock the boat’ and potentially threaten our cultural assimilation into the ‘Canadian fabric’.” She adds, “To bring this up can sometimes stir up discomfort [and] isolation in our communities.”

As Edmonton undergoes major development, the city’s reputation is growing along with it; with countless nationally and internationally recognized festivals, and various art and DIY projects popping up each year, Edmonton’s art scene is as vibrant as it’s ever been. Along with startup hubs that have nurtured a growth in small tech businesses over the last few years, the city’s entrepreneurial spirit garnered praise last year from current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as a city that “turns resource opportunities into economic realities”. Many IPOC, however, still feel like it doesn’t truly value diversity.

Part of the argument is not so much about why there isn’t enough diversity in Edmonton’s arts, music, and literary scenes, but what people’s definition of “diversity” actually means within those scenes. While genres and art styles are varied and well represented in Edmonton, the demographic at shows and events is not always as varied as the styles being offered.

“I’ve had a dream for several years to form a ‘diaspora band’”, says Roberts, a local musician who has been a staple in the Edmonton music scene for a number of years. “I play in a bunch of [bands] in an extremely white scene. Basically I wanted a QTIBPOC space where we could form supports, share experiences and learn about ourselves through art in small groups. The dream has been simmering because Edmonton is flooded with appropriation (white drum circles) and tokenization (Heritage Days and Folk Fest). I didn’t know where I could participate in legit African/diaspora cultures while feeling safe as a queer woman.”

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