four activists who aren’t afraid to shake the status quo
Alexis Zygan (She/Her) // Contributor
Janelle Momotani (She/Her) // Illustrator
While attending high school, I learned about Terry Fox’s stride across stolen land to raise money for cancer research, but when it came to acquiring knowledge about queer and Indigenous changemakers, I was on my own. These people’s stories are part of our history and their impact lives on today through activists, abolitionists and those brave enough to mobilize their rage to work towards dismantling the structures of oppression. Maybe by the time these people pass away, our history books will be rewritten to include their stories.
The Brunswick Four
Let me introduce you to Adrienne Potts, Pat Murphy, Sue Wells and Heather Elizabeth. Four lesbians whose performance at an open-mic night on a winter night in 1974 at The Brunswick House resulted in a police altercation. After being rebuffed and taunted by the men at the bar, the women decided to take the stage for a queer rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s track “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” They changed the lyrics to, “When I see a man who’s sexist/and does something that I don’t like/I just tell him that he can fuck off/I enjoy being a dyke! I’ve always been an uppity woman/I refuse to run—I stand and strike/’Cause I’m gay and I’m proud and I’m angry/And I enjoy being a dyke!” Even though, in 1969, Canada decriminalized homosexuality, the queer community eschewed visibility to avoid discrimination from the general public, who still condemned queer conduct. Despite a round of applause and cheer from the bar crowd following the performance, the owner asked the women to leave, likely to protect the bar’s image. When they resisted, he called the police. The women’s refusal to comply with the officers led to five hours of physical and verbal abuse while in police custody.
The incident of police harassment directed at the queer community received widespread media coverage and visibility, likely because they were white women. The queer community was understandably outraged by the attack and mobilized to demand reform. An interview with Susan Wells is available on Youtube for Egale’s #HearOurStory project.
During the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau promised that the Liberal Government would end the First Nations boil-water advisories within five years. However, according to The Council of Canadians, 73% of First Nations’ water systems are still at high or medium risk of contamination in 2021. Autumn Peltier is a fourteen-year-old Ojibway/Odawa water defender and member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nations. She has been advocating for justice from the age of eight because of her belief that no one residing in a freshwater-rich country should lack access to clean drinking water. Peltier takes after her aunt Josephine Mandamin, who has advocated for universal access to water for years.
Growing up in Alberta, Larissa Crawford faced racism due to her Afro-Caribbean heritage and hid her Métis roots from peers to avoid further discrimination. The experience of racial discrimination in her youth sparked a drive for activism. As Crawford points out, racism and climate change are rooted in colonialism and tackling these issues requires a decolonized lens. Later in life, her connections with Black and Indigenous mentors and peers gave her confidence to become a leading voice for anti-racism and anti-oppression. While studying at York University, she led several anti-racism and Indigenous research initiatives, and presented her findings to Ontario’s Ministry of Energy and Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate. After graduating and having her daughter in 2020, Crawford founded Future Ancestors, an Indigenous and Black-owned youth-led professional services social enterprise that offers training, consulting and public speaking services.
In 1984, Doug Stewart founded Zami, the first Black queer collective in Toronto. The moniker derives from the East Caribbean word for lesbian sex. Stewart spoke publicly about exclusion faced by queer people of colour and criticized The Body Politic, a magazine run by white gay men, after they published a classified ad from a white gay man seeing a black houseboy. Stewart responded by writing a letter to The Body Politic stating that “Black gay activists define themselves first and foremost as Black, and as gay second.” His fervent commitment to exposing racism within the queer community is what makes him an inspiration to others. The issue of white male gay privilege is relevant to this day and maintained by systems of oppression. The gay hookup app, Grindr only removed their ethnicity filter in 2020 after receiving backlash for years from users who complained of being fetishized. Stewart continues to advocate for queer rights as the Executive Director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention.