June is coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean Canada’s Pride Month festivities have to end. While many of us are missing massive pre-pandemic Pride celebrations in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Pride celebrations aren’t limited to massive cities, either.
Xtra’s newest documentary, Small Town Pride, chronicles Pride in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, and Taber, Alberta. The film had its world premiere at Inside Out 2021 in May to rave reviews. The Pigeon had the pleasure of sitting down with filmmakers Chelle Turingan and Riley Sparks to discuss the film, the creators’ own queer experiences, and the power of queer youth.
Editor’s note: Responses have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What surprised you the most while making this documentary?
Chelle Turingan: One of my initial impressions, when we were first starting production of Small Town Pride, was the importance of the rainbow flag in a lot of these locations. I found that quite surprising. In big urban centers, the flag might be seen as somewhat tacky to modern gays, but in these places, that flag is still very much used as a signalling device to other people in their community. It means a great deal to them, which I think is something that gets lost in bigger places and with larger queer communities.
Riley Sparks: Actually, that’s a really good point. That speaks to a bigger sort of truth that we were we were looking into in the doc which was how people have a very particular image of what they think Pride looks like. When you imagine Pride, you picture thousands of people walking down Yonge Street or Davie street in a giant crowd with people dancing on floats. Not to say it’s not meaningful, but the rainbow flag has a different significance there than it might in a town of 400 people in the middle of Nova Scotia. It’s become a symbol of something meaningful in a way that’s maybe a little bit different than it is in the center of Toronto.
You produced the documentary in 2019. How has COVID-19 changed Pride celebrations?
RS: It was pretty bizarre to go from that reality to our current reality. Editing this footage as we’re all living through lockdown was quite strange—It almost felt like a time capsule.
For a lot of people, it was quite disappointing and difficult in a way that again, it maybe wasn’t in a big city. We’ll miss Pride, but when you’re in a small place where people have been fighting so hard to just make [the event] happen, to not have it for a year is a really big deal. In Norman Wells, their Pride isn’t until September, so they may be able to do it this year. But not having that physical connection with the community is tough.
One of the challenging things about these places is that there’s little access to the queer community. For a lot of people, Pride is the only time when they can be out and feel like they’re a part of the community.
In all three cities you featured, youth played a massive role in creating queer communities. What does this say about queer youth?
CT: Part of why Small Town Pride came to be was taking a look at how someone my age would have grown up in a small town and what that experience would have been like. I find it very interesting to see how much change can happen in 20 or 30 years. It’s remarkable because I don’t think I could have ever imagined having the courage or bravery or the strength to think about pushing for Pride celebrations in my community.
But it was 2019 when we filmed, and it’s 2021 now—the world has just changed so much. Like Dora says in the film, the youth are driving these changes in these small towns, particularly in Norman Wells, where they have an established GSA and support from teachers and the community at large. I think the children are the future so it’s very nice to see this happening in smaller places.
RS: I also think it was extraordinary to be able to be there to see and hear some of the conversations that are happening in all these places among the young people. It is so dramatically different than what I remember from when I was in high school.
I was in high school in the early 2000s and the tone, depth and, complexity of the conversations that these kids are having now are so far ahead of where we were not that long ago. Of course, we see in the film that there there are still so many things that are not working. Still, it was incredibly inspiring to be able to see the work that these people are doing. It’s extraordinary.
The role of allies played a huge role for the queer youth in your film. Did either of you have a person like that growing up?
CT: I was very fortunate that I have an older sibling who also identifies as gay. So he was my touchpoint into resources and finding community and learning the ins and outs of being part of this community. But I recognize that a lot of people don’t have that ready access.
RS: I did not, to be honest. One of the big lessons that I learned through doing this film was how important allies are, especially in smaller places.
For example, Sara Kelly in Norman Wells was the teacher who ran the school’s GSA and has taken heat for the work she’s been doing. We met a lot of people in Tabor, which is a challenging place for people because of the political environment there. One of the school counsellors in Tabor was the only one on the town council who voted in favour of raising the rainbow flag.
These folks don’t necessarily have a personal stake in the queer community, but they feel that it’s important, and they’re working hard to make things better.
What advice do you have for queer youth hoping to make a difference in their communities?
CT: Don’t stop. You’re going to hit points in your journey where you’re going to want to stop and it’s going to feel hard. That doesn’t stop when you become an adult. So keep going. It’s well worth the fight.
RS: Eva Pope, who was featured in the film said it well, that the key is to start with the little steps because those things build and they become bigger steps. Eventually, you can make really big changes, but it starts with small things. So don’t be afraid to make those small steps.
Jordan Pike is a fourth-year film student at Queen’s University, and an incoming master’s student at the Columbia School of Journalism.