Kingston Pride kicks off this weekend, and while many are eagerly excited for the opportunity to celebrate inclusion, some members of the community have expressed that they don’t feel welcome.
Pride events such as the Pride is the Future: Drag Show and Dance and the Big Gay Brunch will be hosted at the Renaissance event venue and The Public house (formerly known as Sir John’s Public House). Both venues are owned by Jessup Foods and Heritage. A longtime partner with Kingston Pride, Jessup Food has received criticism for their tumultuous relationship with the Indigenous community.
A group of approximately twelve protestors held a demonstration outside the pub on Labour Day 2017 in the wake of a “I LOVE SIR JOHN A” promotion. The since-deleted post acknowledged that Macdonald “had been taking a lot of heat lately,” but “despite his warts, he was an astute statesman, politician, and father of Canada.” Customers who told their server that they “love Sir John A” could get a “Macdonald Mac & Cheese” and pint of beer for $15 (plus taxes).
Organized by Idle No More, the protestors carried signs criticizing the celebration of Macdonald and highlighting the damage colonialism has done to Indigenous communities and culture, specifically the residential schools which were initiated by Macdonald while serving as Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs from 1878 to 1888.
Reelout Arts Project Executive Director Matt Salton cited the promotion as a heavily discussed topic during a Reelout board meeting late September 2017.
The following month, Reelout Arts Festival sent Jessup Foods owner Paul Fortier a letter stating that “the board has unanimously agreed that we can no longer have an affiliation with Jessup Food and Heritage due to your latest promotion.”
The name was officially changed to The Public House in early January 2018.
In wake of the controversy, Fortier said they have been “working very, very hard to move forward in what I believe is the spirit of reconciliation.”
While Fortier said that Reelout’s choice to sever ties didn’t have anything to do with his choice to change the name, he cited a September 2017 experience with Indigenous community members that helped him see a different side of Sir John A MacDonald’s legacy.
“When individuals did speak to me about their personal experiences with residential schools, I found that very moving. And it helped me personally better understand the hurt that has been felt,” he said.
Four months after his “moving” experience hearing about the legacy of the residential school system, Fortier opened up about his efforts to change the name of the pub to local media at the time, expressing a desire “to be sensitive to the needs of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples,” yet consistently referring to Macdonald as a hero.
“He’s one of our national heroes, he’s one of our city’s heroes,” Fortier said in January of 2018. “I like Sir John A. He’s my hero.”
For those with local Indigenous rights activism group Idle No More Kingston, the responsibility to inform and explain why Macdonald’s legacy isn’t always a positive one should not fall to them.
“We shouldn’t have to educate anyone on the Aryan Nation John A called for, the policies and wars he enacted here to see that end, and how those same policies and actions are continued today,” said Krista, a member of Idle No More who requested to withhold her last name, referring to reports of Macdonald being the only member of Parliament to use the term ‘Aryan’ during the 1870s and 1880s and an 1885 speech to the House of Commons where Macdonald describes his desire to protect “the Aryan character of the future of British America”.
“It’s in the history books,” Krista said.
Fortier stated that he worked as historian for 20 years, and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Canadian History and Masters degree in Museum Studies/Canadian History. He cites his extensive knowledge of history as the reason that “I can say, probably better than any, I can see the good and the bad of John A MacDonald in a very objective way.”
“He did good things and he did some things that were not good,” said Fortier. “John A McDonald, in the position he was in, was involved in things that were not so savoury, such as residential schools, the Indian Act, and other things, and we recognize that. We have to recognize that and just move forward.”
According to Salton, the Reelout film festival board’s unanimous decision to break ties with Jessup Foods was based on Fortier’s historical background and comprehensive knowledge of the situation, which meant that his actions “didn’t come from a place of lack of education.”
“He made an informed decision to flagrantly dismiss the pain of Indigenous members of our community,” Salton said. “We determined that was, in our opinion, an act of racism.”
“I find it very hypocritical that Kingston Pride would do a land acknowledgment but not listen to Indigenous concerns about Jessup Foods,” said Ponzi, a local Indigenous activist involved with Idle No More who also requested his last name not be used.
“If they take sponsorships and use venues and include structures and businesses that are oppressing us, that doesn’t make us feel safe or included,” agreed Krista, an Indigenous woman and ’60s Scoop survivor.
Both parties voiced their concerns over social media, but did not receive much response. Kingston Pride eventually reached out to Ponzi, but requested that the conversation take place in private. Ponzi turned down the offer, and said that having a public dialogue was a critical learning opportunity for the community.
“They want to keep it private so no one can see what they’re saying,” said Ponzi.
While Kingston Pride has room for ten board members, there are currently only six.
“We have pretty reasonable diversity as far as sexuality and gender expression are concerned,” said Ruth Wood, president of Kingston Pride. “But, at the moment, none of us are Indigenous, and we realize that that’s a shortcoming.”
Wood said that Pride was hoping to incorporate Indigenous voices either through adding more board members or arranging training for the current board.
“One of those things that we would like to do is have some kind of a talking circle, that would allow everybody interested to come and talk and be able to be heard,” said Wood. “We would work on getting… either [a] group or a person that would come in and educate us before we even try to have a talking circle. It would be involving an Indigenous person to come in and facilitate that.”
While Krista and Ponzi had cited hosting dialogue as a good way for Kingston Pride to improve their relationship with Indigenous communities, both expressed that it was important that the duty of educating about colonialism, anti-indigeneity, and racism isn’t put on the shoulders of those who have to live with it.
“They say ‘you come educate us on our terms,’ then only listen to the person that agrees most with their standpoint,” Krista said. “Pride should consider seeking out spaces where queer, trans, black, and Indigneous people of colour are discussing the issues that affect them every day in the settler colonial state, and therefore in Pride.”
While Wood said that Pride was taking steps towards building more inclusive events, no action would be taken for 2019.
“There’s just no way that we can react at this point, for this year,” said Wood.
According to Wood, none of the Pride board members had even considered that the partnership with Jessup Foods would make Indigenous would-be attendees uncomfortable. Previous board meetings “didn’t include any discussion that I know about the Public House, or the former Sir John’s Public house,” she said.
When asked if Kingston Pride planned on partnering with Jessup Food for future events, Wood said that she wanted those who felt unsafe attending this year “to know that we’re working on it, and that we’d like to involve them in finding solutions,” but that she “couldn’t even say what [Kingston Pride] is going to do next year.”