Toronto City Council vs. Pride: More political, less financial

By Rob Lowrey and Fallon Hewitt

(Fallon Hewitt/ Humber College)

When a sit-in protest at Toronto Pride halted the annual parade last year, few anticipated the sense of controversy that would go on to fill the city’s political atmosphere.

The 2016 honoured guests, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), stopped the parade in protest against Pride Toronto, providing the organization with nine commands.

This list of demands included the increase of representation for black and indigenous queer people. Yet, what stirred the pot among not just the queer community — but all of Toronto — was the exclusion of police floats and officers in uniform from participation in the festivities.

Since then, the conversation that BLMTO started at the intersection of Yonge and College Streets has grown nationwide. The Halifax police have withdrawn from pride festivities in Nova Scotia, while Black Lives Matter groups in Vancouver and Edmonton continuously petition to remove police inclusion in their city’s Pride.

On March 28, the conversation returned to Toronto with talks of Councillor John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre) drafting a motion to defund Pride, therefore withdrawing the $260,000 the city gives the festival each year.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto-Centre Rosedale) says that people outside the conversation have no right to take away the voice of those that have received harassment from police. “I don’t think it would be fair for us to deny the experiences of people who are saying that they have been on the receiving end of police violence and brutality, without ever living in their shoes,” said Wong-Tam.

With Toronto being one of the most diverse cities in the world, the LGBTQ+ community within the city intersects with other social issues like race, religion and social class. Many live through intersectional experiences — experiences that no one but themselves have lived.

“Those who are living with intersectional identities who are vulnerable, who are already running against the current of society with respect to the disadvantages that they have,” said Wong-Tam. “I can see that their grievances are real and who am I to take that away from them?”

Last summer’s sit-in was a reminder of the historic tensions between the LGBTQ+ community and police, including the 1969 Stonewall Riots, progressing into the Bathhouse Raids of 1981, and the Pussy Palace interrogations in 2000.

According to Nik Redman, a member of Blackness YES!, a Toronto-based group that works to promote inclusivity of Black queer people, says that members of the community have lost sight of where the virtues of Pride originated.

“I think people keep forgetting that Pride started as a protest. It was cops that raided the bathhouses,” Redman said. “So, you know not necessarily those cops but this is obviously part of our activism as queer people, I think people tend to forget that a lot.”

Redman is also a founding member of Blockorama, the largest and longest-running stage at Pride Toronto, a space that celebrates LGBTQ+ folks of African descent. This is just one of the spaces that could feel the effects of the proposed motion.

Wong-Tam says 100 per cent of the funding the city provides is dedicated to cultural stages and performances. Stages provided to organizations like Blackness Yes!.

Of the nine demands, one was the call for an increase of Blockorama’s budget. A budget that has remained the same since 2006, even after becoming one of the most attended stages during the festival.

“The thing about our budget not increasing for many years, that was just a very factual and true. We’ve had to fight at times to maintain the space and get us stationary,” said Redman. “We’ve been moved around quite a bit.”

If the proposed motion is passed, Blockorama is among one of the many groups affected by the defunding, however, it won’t stop them from putting on a show.

“We would still be putting together something for Blockorama anyway,” said Redman. “It’s important to note that while we are part of Pride, we also do events year round.”

Though Blackness YES! plays a significant role during Pride, they also take part in other major festivals and events in Toronto. During Caribana, a weekend long festival that celebrates Caribbean cultures, Blackness Yes! puts on Blockobana, a queer-based stage that garners only a share of those at Pride.

“We have to fundraise for that. It’s not as large scale as Blockorama at Pride, but we would definitely still try to do something,” said Redman.

The city of Toronto makes far more from the festival than the $260,000 they provide.

The festival brings in about $600 million to the city, says Olivia Nuamah, Executive Director of Pride Toronto. Even with the financial benefit to the city, the partnership with the festival isn’t just about money.

“For us, the value doesn’t only come in the dollars — yes it allows us to put on a bigger and better festival, but it’s the values in the partnership we create with the city in order to put the festival on,” said Nuamah. “That’s really what we don’t want to lose.”

Despite the looming chance that city council could pass the motion, Nuamah says the festival will go on with or without the city’s support.

“Pride existed before funding from the city. This community is committed to ensuring that this festival continues,” said Nuamah. “Funding from the city is what allows us to know that the city is behind this community, difference, and it’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

“This festival matters to people,” said Nuamah. “It matters as it is a display of our commitment to queer communities — particularly queer communities of colour.”

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