Featured Front

That small town spirit

// Andrew Benson
// Andrew Benson

When Lynn Wannop put a gay-pride sticker on the door of her café in Jasper six years ago, she had no idea what kind of impact it would have.

A board member of HIV West Yellowhead at the time, a Jasper organization that promotes education around the subject of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and STIs, Wannop had ordered a handful of the rainbow decals online and one quickly found a home on the door of her business, Coco’s Café. It was an easy enough decision—she simply wanted to emulate the kind of welcoming environment she’d experienced growing up on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue—but in a “blue-collar Alberta” town with “5000 residents and nine churches,” the sticker left an impression.

“I just put a pride sticker on my door because I wanted to be known as somewhere that was a safe place to come into and welcoming,” Wannop says. “I didn’t think twice about it, and, oh my goodness, the ripple it caused. It was crazy.”

Although there were a few negative reactions—the sticker was ripped off her door, though she promptly replaced it—the majority were positive. The reaction set something off in Wannop and soon after she approached Jordan Tucker at Mountain Park Lodges about the idea of starting a Pride event in Jasper.

After some frantic fundraising, Jasper’s first Pride celebration became a one-night bar event and saw just 40 or so people attend. Spirits were high despite the small turn out, and the mix of locals and out-of-town visitors who’d come especially for the event was an encouraging sign to Wannop.

“I had this idea in my head that Jasper would be easily a very cool place to host something like this, and I was totally right,” she says.

The festival has increased in attendance and size every year since, the establishment of OUT Jasper in 2010 provided some much-needed funding for the event. This weekend, from March 21 – 23, Jasper’s Pride Festival will be celebrating its fifth anniversary—a milestone Wannop only dreamed of back when she started it.

Wannop has since stepped down from her leadership role, but she still volunteers at the event, endeavouring to promote the rights of the LGBTQ community in Jasper whenever she can.
“Jasper is such an amazing place, and there are so many of us young business owners who totally feel this way and obviously [being] younger, we’re the ones who are going to be running this town in the next 20 years. We all sort of feel the same: let’s make it somewhere that we’re proud to say that we live here,” she says. “It’s so cool to sit back and watch it go from just a little party at the bar and see it turn into something that I wanted it to turn into.”

Today’s incarnation of the festival is a much different beast than the one Wannop piloted in 2009. The past four years have seen it grow from that initial bar event to a celebration featuring more than 350 people, eventually outgrowing Jasper’s activity centre last year. Hoping to capitalize on the event’s growing popularity and continue its momentum, the creation of an independent organization to house the festival seemed a natural evolution for the town, and in September 2013, the Jasper Pride Festival Society was formed.

While the organization’s first mandate is to run the annual festival and related events like fundraisers, its secondary goal of establishing Jasper as a safe and discrimination-free environment for the local and visiting LGBTQ community, as well as their family, friends and allies, is perhaps even more important.

As the first co-chairs of the non-profit organization, Uwe Walter and Sue McCarthy are as personally motivated to push this message as they are professionally. They’ve seen how the importance of Jasper’s pride festivities has grown, to the point where Tourism Jasper is currently promoting the festival’s fifth anniversary alongside milestones such as Marmot Basin and the Jasper Tramways’ 50th anniversaries.

For McCarthy, who has lived in Jasper for 21 years and been out for six, the presence of the Jasper Pride Festival and organizations like OUT Jasper have played a key role in making the town a more accessible place for people of any sexual orientation in recent years.

“Almost every year, it felt like it got better and better and bigger, and now I feel like I can hold my hand with my partner in town here and feel absolutely safe,” McCarthy says. “You can feel the evolution, you can feel how the community is so inviting and the doors are open and [saying], ‘Yes, we want you here.'”

Walter, who came to Jasper two years ago and was a volunteer with the festival last year, is particularly proud of how widespread the festival’s audience has become.

Along with visitors from across Canada, he says they’re expecting people from Montana, Australia and even Germany this year. The fact that the event is the only pride celebration in a national park in Canada certainly doesn’t hurt attendance, and neither do the festival’s fun activities—this year’s theme is Jungle Fun, and events include a drag show, an LGBTQ-themed short-film festival, theatre and comedy shows, outdoor activities and more.

And yet, despite the town’s growing LGBTQ-friendly reputation, Walter says they still frequently come across people who are surprised that a town like Jasper, given its relatively small size, has an event like this at all.

“I think it sends a very strong signal within the rural Alberta communities that you can have pride celebrations, you can be supportive, you can be proud even if you’re not living in Calgary or Edmonton. You do not necessarily need to live in a metropolitan area in order to live a safe life,” he says.

And while having a smaller festival could seem like a hindrance, it’s actually a key part of why some visitors keep coming back. That’s been the case for Lisa Martin, a native Edmontonian who will be returning to the festival for the second time this weekend. Martin lived in Grand Prairie for a time while on a soccer scholarship and she remembers feeling different and not as welcome in the small-town atmosphere due to her sexual orientation. The fact that she’s had quite the opposite experience in Jasper makes the event special to her.

“It was much smaller, which was kind of unique because you really get to know quite a few people,” she explains. “Whereas Edmonton—there’s nothing wrong with Edmonton’s, it’s great, it’s nice to see it expanding so much and all these people attending—but [in Jasper], it’s like kind of being in a smaller community, getting to know each other … you feel more involved.”

Martin heard about the festival during a trip to Jasper two years ago, and came back to attend it with a group of friends from her soccer community last year. Having attended Edmonton’s pride festivities in the past, she was excited to go to something different and to be part of something just starting up.

“When they were saying there’s a Jasper Pride, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of odd,’ because it’s like a smaller location and you kind of get these ideas of smaller towns and what not that they’re not really comfortable with that situation. But I felt like we were hopping around to different pubs, and even the Fairmont Jasper and all the other hotels we checked out, they were just so welcoming, I couldn’t believe it,” Martin says. “I felt more comfortable actually in Jasper than I did in Edmonton, to be honest.”

Experiences like these make the long hours of organizing a festival worthwhile for the two co-chairs. Having lived in Jasper for over two decades, McCarthy in particular has seen the journey the town has gone through, particularly since the Jasper Pride Festival launched five years ago. The rainbow pride stickers that once caused an uproar when Wannop stuck one to her door now adorn much of the town, and it’s a sight that brings tears to McCarthy’s eyes.”I could not believe the first time I saw a pride flag in a business window,” McCarthy says, her voice quivering with emotion. “It took forever to come out and to actually be wanted and accepted. There’s nothing more important than a human being part of a community. To see friends that get hurt or abused or murdered or whatever is very hurtful, so to see the community help us and support us … and even suggest activities and suggest we want to help and give and give and give—it’s so overwhelming.

“That’s why I’m emotional, because I’ve been here a long time and it took this much time, and we’re finally there.”

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