What is it Like to be an Indigenous Transgender Artist in Canada?
Imagine that you’re invited to a dinner party, but you’ve only received your invitation that same afternoon a couple of hours before the party. You put on your best outfit in a hurry. When you arrive at the party, you find out that the tables are already set with name tags on them, yet your name is nowhere to be found. The organizers ask some guests to squish over to make room for you, and bring a foldable chair from a room in the back for you to sit.
All the invitees at the table are already eating their main course, and that’s when the party organizers realize they don’t have a plate left for you. You look around, and you realize that everyone else received their invitation months ago, that they had time to prepare their outfits and arrive in time to receive party favours. But somehow while you’re sitting there feeling embarrassed, the organizers and guests look at you and say: we are here because we want to honour you, and we’re so grateful that you’re here.
“That’s what it feels like on a lot of days”, said G.R. Gritt, commenting on what it’s been like for them to be an active Indigenous transgender artist in the music industry in Canada. G.R. Gritt is a Juno Award winning, Two-Spirit, Transgender, Francophone, Anishinaabe/Metis artist.
“What I experience as a white coated Indigenous transgender queer artist is but a fraction of what darker skin peers experience.”
An Intimate Discussion
G.R. Gritt was joined by Pam Patel, Artistic Director at the M/T Space and Charles Smith, Executive Director at the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) in CAPACOA’s All Access Town Hall titled Rebuilding Upon More Sustainable and Equitable Foundations – Equity & Inclusion, which took place virtually on November 3rd, 2020. The intimate discussion explored implications and actions of rebuilding a new sector with equity and inclusion enshrined in Canadian arts organizations, businesses or artistic practices. The discussion was facilitated by Denise Bolduc, an accomplished arts and culture leader. She is Anishnaabe from the Lake Superior territory, and a member of the Batchewana First Nation.
Destruct to Reconstruct
For Pam Patel, the issue in our sector seems straightforward: we need to reconsider/reimagine our processes for how we recruit our board members and staff. She remembers a time where recruiting board members and staff at the M/T Space was based solely on academic qualifications and industry experience.
“We didn’t realize it, but we were building a company which privileged whiteness. It didn’t matter that the works we were producing and presenting were from BIPOC artists, when the folks who were calling the shots were barely from these communities. We had to dismantle everything and rebuild.”, said Pam.
Her story of rebuilding her organization is certainly inspiring, she courageously admitted: “I realized that skills can be learnt. What can’t be learnt is our values, our lived experiences as BIPOC folks living in communities.”
Pam moved away from the traditional interview questions, and came up with a whole new list that focused on values. Here are some of the questions she included in job interviews for the M/T Space:
- What anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts are you incorporating into your own practices?
- How do you align with BLM and other forms of activism? How has your experience with multiculturalism in Waterloo region shaped your view of the arts?
- What are your ideas on the concept of Community Care or Call Out Culture?
“We changed the way we interviewed candidates, and actually this led to privileging BIPOC folks.”, said Pam.
Disadvantaged Black Organizations
While rebuilding strategies are essential, Charles Smith, Executive Director at the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario brings another perspective. His organization advocates for artists and arts organizations from black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC).
Mr. Smith noted that while many white arts organizations have existed for decades in Canada, black organizations didn’t always have an equal opportunity to receive funding. “It’s not that we didn’t have art or artists – we were just not allowed into the system.“, said Charles. He raised a vital issue in the system, which now permits applying for funding, but does not take into consideration the over 60 years of disadvantage for black arts organizations. “Equity doesn’t mean letting [black arts organizations] have entry level into putting an application [for funding].”, Charles commented.
In Search for Solutions
“You don’t need to get to the solution right away – you need to go through all the uncomfortable steps leading to the solutions.”G.R. Gritt.
Going back to the party example mentioned above, Gritt invites all event presenters, and everyone in power in arts organizations to ask themselves the following questions: Who made and arranged the dinner table? Who sent out the invitations? Who is invited and why? Who was not invited and why? Who should have been part of the discussion but is not? Who can’t come and why? Who is missing and why? And who should have been there?
“We [Indigenous artists] check a lot of your boxes for grants, and for diversity, but what does that really translate to? You want us and you need us at your tables, your conferences and your festivals. But you haven’t done the work to actually welcome us, build a relationship with us and protect us.”, comments Gritt.
To them, it is absolutely necessary for arts organizations to have and implement a safety policy and protocol.
“If you have never used the safety protocol that is in place yet, it doesn’t mean you haven’t had issues. I’m ready to bet everything that there have been situations where you should have used a safety protocol but no one told you because there is a power imbalance.”, they said.
Join the discussion
How does your arts organization foster equity and inclusion? Share your experiences, send an email to Boran Zaza at firstname.lastname@example.org