Proud to Shine on the East Coast
Meet a few interesting, inspiring, and innovative 2SLGBTQ+ people who shine in their communities
Each summer, Proud To Shine highlights 2SLGBTQ+ folks who are making a difference in their communities, industries and everyday life.
This year, communities have been physically separated and Pride parades have been cancelled due to physical distancing measures. In these times, community and connection is more important than ever. Pride goes on, even without the physical parades and other events!
In honour of Pride, we want to create an online space for people to celebrate one another. Proud to Shine nominees were submitted on social media, through email, and through our newsrooms. Throughout the summer, we will be sharing some of their stories. Check back here for updates, and you can also find the stories shared on the CBC East Coast Instagram channel.
Denise Cole, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL
There are a lot of ways to describe Denise Cole. She's a land protector. She's a recovering addict. She's a Two-Spirit Inuk/Settler. She's a volunteer, a community leader, a role model, a board member. She's an aunt, a sister, a daughter. And, she's from a long line of strong Labrador women. Being from Labrador is intrinsic to who Denise is.
"When I'm in Labrador, I feel whole," she says. Returning home to Labrador in 2009, after spending much of her life struggling with trauma and addictions, changed her life. "I was able to find healing in many ways including recovery & deeper connections to my culture. It was the land, water and ancestors that humbled me into a path of purpose."
It's clear why Denise was nominated for this "Proud to Shine" series — she has a lot to be proud of. She helped host the first Pride celebrations in Labrador, has spent decades working in Labrador nonprofits, has mentored countless youth... the list could go on. But, she points out, "Sometimes pride is considered to be a vain emotion, it's why I work more from a place of gratitude and humility… I'm grateful to be alive and on a path of purpose.
Denise works at the Labrador Friendship in Goose Bay, where she's the SHIELD Project Coordinator.
"SHIELD (Sexual Health Information Exchange Labrador District) is a youth led and adult supported initiative encouraging positive sexual health, personal wellness, and healthy relationships," she says. "My role is to create safe spaces for youth to learn and share together inter-generationally as well as coordinate all project activities."
Denise would like to see continued support for safe spaces in her community. "While we host Pride celebrations and campaigns, we know that many people still do not feel safe to be themselves. Education and advocacy is needed," she says.
I would like to see an organization that is dedicated to creating these safe spaces along with the training, support, and advocacy work led by staff in a sustainable way. Right now, most of us do the work as volunteers; this is a real struggle at times.- Denise Cole
Normally Denise's job and volunteer commitments keep her busy, but like many people this year, she says everything hit the brakes when COVID-19 happened.
"This was hard but good, I realize now I needed the refocus."
As Denise figures out the new norm of connecting online, she's inspired by how resilient and adaptable the youth in her community have been. "That helps me cope," she says. "Coping for me involves daily ceremony, prayer, and working my program with my recovery family."
The 'time out' of COVID has also provided an opportunity to bond more with family, and spend time with her partner and her pup. "Therapy, spirituality, getting outside, good food, rest, family, and mindless online shows are all a part of my stay healthy plan," says Denise.
"As someone who's experienced trauma and gotten to a place of healing and creation, I feel pretty solid in how I balance life. As a Two Spirit, fire and water, my inner balance is essential as is my commitment to growth and authenticity. Connection with land and the greater circle of life is a big part of how I keep myself in a good place."
Jennifer Alicia, Bay of Islands, NL / Toronto, ON
"I am a mixed (Mi'kmaw/settler), awkward queerdo, storyteller, jingle dress dancer, and proud big sis just trying to be a good ancestor," says Jennifer Alicia.
She is also a two-time national champion spoken word poet, an educator, organizer, and activist. She currently lives in Toronto, and is from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, NL) where she returns every year. Right now, she's working on a poetry collection centred around the idea of home.
"I am always longing for home walking the concrete streets of Toronto," she says. "When I close my eyes, I can smell the fish plant and taste the Atlantic on my lips. Home is goosebumps on the back of my neck when my feet touch our rocky beaches. Home is an eternal connection to the land and water. Home is kinship. I began working on a collection of poetry centred on home mostly because I am constantly homesick, longing for my homelands. Storytelling is integral to where I come from as an l'nu and as a Newfoundlander and I really want to honour my ancestors by carrying on this legacy."
Jennifer Alicia works full-time in academia and spends the rest of her time "creating art, raising my cat, and resisting/dismantling colonial oppressive systems."
Poetry is where she has always found healing. "As an introverted only child, I reimagined alternate realities and processed trauma through writing." Now, "My poetry is a reflection of the deep love and rage I hold for myself, my family, my community, my ancestors and my homelands," she says. "Integrity is central to my work, which is why I share my own stories. I am also accountable to the various communities I belong to and therefore, have a responsibility to uplift those truths in the spaces I gain access to."
One of the communities Jennifer Alicia's a part of is Seeds & Stardust. The Indigenous women's poetry collective was formed in the winter of 2016. "The collective was created out of a need for Indigenous poets and writers to gather, share, laugh, create and perform together," she says. When she joined, she was longing for a place to feel at home. "I was exhausted having to explain the complexities and nuances of my identity and experiences. Seeds & Stardust challenges the categories of poetry and speaks back to the colonial narratives of our stories and bodies."
We are Seeds: as in growing space, growing each other, reclaiming stories and poems and selves. The beginning, the middle and the end. We are Stardust: as in, that is all that we are. We cannot be contained. The seeds and the stardust connect us all. Past, present and future.- Jeennifer Alicia
The nature of Seeds & Stardust is emblematic of what Alicia hopes to see for the 2SLGBTQA+ community in general. "I hope we continue to show up for one another. I hope we keep centring all Black and Indigenous folks and continuously fight, resist, and dismantle oppressive colonial systems and ways of thinking."
As a natural introvert and homebody, Jennifer Alicia says she feels privileged that the adjustment of living in isolation during the pandemic wasn't too challenging for her. "It feels like I have been able to catch my breath for the first time in a long time. The stillness has allowed me to sit with myself and regain focus on my art. It has also allowed me to intentionally create space for growth and healing in my life once again."
When asked what she's most proud of, her answer is simple: "I am proud to still be here, alive, living and thriving."
It's the answer we could all give this year.
Santiago Guzmán, St. John's, NL
How does a teenaged theatre-lover from Mexico City land in Corner Brook, NL? It began with a college fair.
Santiago Guzmán had half-heartedly decided on communications at a local university as a course of study, when he decided to shift gears and follow his dreams. He was introduced to Memorial University at a local college fair, where they were the only university offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre. He moved to Corner Brook to pursue his studies. "Before then, I had never visited Canada in my life," he says. After getting his degree, Guzmán moved to St. John's and became what he called "a Newfoundlander by choice."
"Well, being an immigrant is hard, you know? When I moved here back in 2015, I looked back at Mexico and felt like I didn't belong there anymore," Guzmán says. "But when I looked at Newfoundland and Labrador, I didn't feel like I belonged here either. For a long period of my life I felt as though I was homeless." He says it was an active, conscious choice to make Newfoundland feel like home. But it wasn't easy in a predominantly white, cis, hetero theatre community. People weren't producing content, on local stages or screens, that portrayed the experiences of Guzmán or people like him. "I realized, then, that there was a lot to do."
Guzmán applied to a funding competition, and less than a year ago TODOS Productions was born. "I wanted to foster and create space for artists like me in our province that felt like opportunities were not accessible and attainable," he says. They've already produced Guzmán's first play, which will tour across Newfoundland and Labrador, created a writing mentorship, and facilitated two script developments.
2020 has been a wild year for Guzmán, to say the least. In addition to his work with TODOS Productions, he has multiple scripts in development — an excerpt from one recently debuted at the Paprika Theatre Festival in Toronto.
Oh, and then there's "Snowmageddon" and a global pandemic. "It has been a roller coaster of emotions," he says. When the pandemic began shutting down global travel, Guzmán was in the midst of his first trip back to Mexico in more than three years. As a temporary resident, he wasn't eligible to return to Canada though the federal government's efforts. The extended stay in Mexico reinforced that, now, Newfoundland is home. "I was beyond excited to be with my loved ones, eat all the food that I had craved for so long, and speak Spanish 24/7. However, all the projects that I was developing, my closest friends, my belongings were in Canada. It was such a bizarre feeling."
Ever since he got back home, Guzmán has been working nonstop — even though physical distancing measures have challenged him to change his approach to creating art. For example, he recently directed and performed in an online play. "I hope that we [BIPOC 2SLGBTQ+ folks] are seen and heard on the local stages and screens. Not as supporting characters or narratives, but as central focus in mainstream productions.
Francesca Ekwuyasi, Halifax, NS
"I hope we choose love and we grow," says Francesca Ekwuyasi. When she thinks about her hope for the future of her local 2SLGBTQ+ community, Kai Cheng Thom's essay collection "I Hope We Chose Love" comes to mind. "Love meaning a commitment to justice, compassion, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, and accountability — we're a microcosm of the larger society and there's lots of harmfulness to unlearn and lots of healing to learn," she says.
Ekwuyasi is an author living in Halifax, NS, by way of Lagos, Nigeria. Her novel "Butter Honey Pig Bread", published by Arsenal Pulp Press, comes out this October. "It's a story — three interwoven stories really — about a woman who doesn't believe that she's human and her relationship with her twin daughters," she says. "It has themes of family, grief, magical realism, pleasure, food, queerness, and loss.
2020 is a big year for Ekwuyasi. In addition to her book, she turned 30 back in March. "It's pretty powerful to start a new decade of my life the same year as what seems to be a global reckoning with racism and abuse of power. And there's the pandemic!"
Ekwuyasi has been writing stories since childhood, and dreamed of writing a book of her own one day. "It feels wild that it exists," she says. "I started writing it in 2013 so I'm very grateful it's finally going to exist in the world. I'm proud of myself.
In addition to being an author, Ekwuyasi is a multidisciplinary creator. She makes films, visual art, audio stories, and more. One of her projects, a short doc called "Black & Belonging", will air on CBC later this summer.
Ekwuyasi says being a multidisciplinary creator means considering every medium as a vehicle for storytelling. "I think the purpose of art is to make meaning that can, perhaps, touch something in other people, so as long as the medium suffices to convey that meaning, I'm keen to work with it."
Dr. Sulaimon Giwa, St. John's, NL
On June 6 of this year, Dr. Sulaimon Giwa addressed the thousands of people who'd gathered for a Black Lives Matter rally in St. John's, NL with a message: "the legacy of systemic anti-Black racism is not limited to the police."
"Anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched in the social fabric of Canadian society," says Dr. Giwa. "This fact too often conveniently gets overlooked or buried under the rhetoric and policies of multiculturalism, which has and continues to extol the diverse and inclusive character of the Canadian state. What is clear is that, for too long, the Canadian Black experience was made irrelevant and inconsequential."
Dr. Giwa splits his time between Gatineau, QC and St. John's, NL, where he's an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Memorial University. He has studied, taught, and written about issues related to racism and policing for years. But for Dr. Giwa, "2020 has been a year like no other."
From COVID-19 to the global Black Lives Matter movement and rebellion, the world is undergoing a tremendous change—and quickly. The lesson of COVID-19, in my view, is the need for us to recalibrate and reevaluate our priorities at the individual, community, and societal level.- Dr. Sulaimon Giwa
"I can only hope that we heed the lessons from this pandemic and apply it to improve the lives of everyone going forward—especially in service to our elders, our essential workers (most of whom are racialized, underpaid, underappreciated, and undervalued), and members of the marginalized and stigmatized communities who have been hardest hit by the disease," he says.
As communities around Atlantic Canada celebrate Pride festivals this summer, consider how the 2SLGBTQ+ community is evolving, and what change is still to come. "The challenges of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, for example, are not matters restricted to mainstream society. The same white supremacist logics that harm heterosexual Black and Indigenous people are the same ones found in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and they need to be eradicated."
Dr. Giwa is a co-principal investigator, alongside Dr. Delores Mullings and the YWCA, on a five-year, federally funded project focused on 2SLGBTQIA+ newcomers in NL. He also sits on the board of Quadrangle NL, a non-profit with a mission to create a community centre for 2SLGBTQAI+ folks. "It is good time to be a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community and the future of the community looks bright," says Dr. Giwa.
For all his accomplishments, Sulaimon says he's most proud of the work done by Black Lives Matter—Newfoundland and Labrador. "As a group, we organized a historic rally. It was a big success—thousands of people attended. Their huge numbers were impressive, but even more impressive was the fact that the rally brought together people from all racial walks of life—Black, White, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern, and more. All of them were linked in their commitment and belief that a better world is possible. The rally is a testament to what can happen when we unite and work together for the benefit of everyone."
That day, Dr. Giwa wanted to "wake white people up to their collective moral and social responsibility to effect structural and transformative change, which I know is possible when we all work together."
"My hope is that the same level of community support continues from this critical moment into the future."
Kayla Borden, Halifax, NS
Founder. Organizer. Creative director. Treasurer. Talent scout. Take a skim of Kayla Borden's resume and you'll get tired just thinking about how hard she works.
She's a builder, constructing platforms and networks for unheard voices in the arts community. The list of festivals and organizations Borden is involved with is long, but lately she's had to slow down a bit.
"OMG-GOODNESS. I ain't going to lie, this year's been tough," she says. "Just being in the house all the time is a lot. It's been hard to be creative but I try to push myself everyday to do something to get the businesses back up and running."
Borden is a vital part of Halifax's arts scene. She's worked with Music Nova Scotia to organize a tribute to Viola Desmond, works with the Bus Stop Theatre's StART Festival for emerging artists, scouts talent for The Emerging Lens Film Festival... the list could go on. A decade ago she launched her own entertainment promotion company, Paint Cha A Pitcha, which she's now revamping into Pineapple Express Media. "Myself and community member, and organizer Nivie Singh are collaborating on this journey. Our first launch of Pineapple Express Media will be an online magazine which will focus on bridging the gap of Atlantic Canadian Urban artists and talent to international platforms. Pineapple Express Media will highlight past, present and future urban talent in Atlantic Canada, while staying true to the essence of Hip Hop."
One of Borden's projects (she's a founder) is We Are Missing Radio on CKDU. "We Are Missing is an open collaborative working group that aims to create mindful QTBIPOC programming that the community feels reflected by," she says. "We center Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Colour while celebrating queer liberation." Borden says she's proud of the support she's gotten from her community. "Sometimes we forget about how many people are actually rooting for you."
I am proud how I can authentically be myself in spaces that I thought that I couldn't because of my sexuality and being a Black Caribbean woman — which in our culture is not looked upon as accepted.- Kayla Borden
"There's so much culture to experience within the [Queer] community," Borden says. "My hope is for us to become closer and unite to bring a better experience and future for the generations coming behind us. I would like to see more POC in power when it comes to organizing and celebrating Pride."
All this is just the beginning for a person whose motto is "The Sky is NOT the limit because beyond it is so much space." "That's what we should be aiming for," she says. "I never give up. I just change how I move within working with organizations, people and community."
Gail Christmas - Membertou, Unama'ki (Cape Breton)
Gail Christmas is proud of her heritage and experiences that have shaped her life.
Those experiences have led her to become a mentor and role model in Membertou, an urban and progressive Mi'kmaq community in Unama'ki (Cape Breton).
Born and raised in Membertou, Christmas is the youngest female to ever be elected as a band councillor.
"In my adolescent years I had a hard time, I gave in to peer pressure and I was in trouble quite a bit," Christmas says. "Therefore I wanted to give back as to what was given to me when I was younger, which is by being a role model. Being there and guiding the youth with sports, education and encouraging them to accomplish their goals."
She treasures a note she received from a graduate. "A high school grad just recently thanked me and said, 'Thank you Gail for always encouraging me to stay in school and for the drives, you definitely helped me graduate as well.' "
The journey to helping others and giving back to the community blossomed after some hardship, that has helped her become the leader she is today.
"I am very proud of who I am today, as I am eight years sober," she says. "I am 32 now, but at the age of 28, I became the youngest female to ever be elected as a councillor in Membertou. I am proud because of the changes I made in my lifestyle and for the love I have for my community and give back to Membertou."
For her 2SLGBTQ+ community, Christmas would like to see a support group in Membertou. "A place to feel safe and to meet other friends as well. Then from there we can plan activities, like camping trips and work together to put on workshops to educate around the 2SLGBTQ+ community."
In a year like no other, Christmas says she reminds herself that self care is always important.
"If I take care of Gail first, then I can take care of others," she said. "I love to exercise, taking our dog for a walk with my fiancée and daughter."
During the Covid pandemic, she's been busy with a food bank she runs out of her house called Ruth's Pantry, supporting families in Membertou.
"We helped over 50 families. Volunteering and helping others was how I was raised and I am instilling the same values in my children."