Montreal's Saint-Laurent borough pulls plug on drag queen storytime event for kids

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Barbada, left, was scheduled to read to kids in the Saint-Laurent library this November, but the event was suddenly nixed by the borough council. (Shari Okeke/CBC - image credit)
Barbada, left, was scheduled to read to kids in the Saint-Laurent library this November, but the event was suddenly nixed by the borough council. (Shari Okeke/CBC - image credit)

A well-known television personality and drag queen, Barbada De Barbades, says a Montreal borough has cancelled her upcoming storytime event for children at its local library, with little explanation.

Barbada is the stage name of Sébastien Potvin, who has been reading uplifting stories to kids across Quebec for about five years — stories that send the message that it's OK to be different.

Barbada, who uses "she/her" pronouns when in character, said this is the first time in Quebec that an event she is paid to do has been cancelled in this way.

"Everything was perfect. We had the contract signed," Barbada said. From what she's since been told, the event, which included two readings, was nixed after the programming schedule went to borough council for approval.

"It went very, very fast last week, and I would have loved to have been informed and could have prevented this whole thing."

She said she would have been happy to have performed the story hour for the council, if need be, reading stories like The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water by Gemma Merino.

The story is about a crocodile who is afraid of water but gets coaxed into swimming. Finally, the crocodile tries one last time to swim, almost drowns, later sneezes and breathes fire —  discovering it may not actually be a crocodile after all.

"It's about feeling different, not really understanding why you're different, but eventually finding your true self and getting to understand it's OK to be different," Barbada said.

The event is geared toward young children and contains none of the adult-oriented humour one might expect at a late-night drag queen performance for grownups, Barbada said.

Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC
Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC

Saint-Laurent borough Mayor Alan DeSousa said his borough is very culturally diverse, a place where everybody lives together peacefully.

"We are mainly concerned about the subjects that will be discussed," at Barbada's storytime event, he said. DeSousa said he and other elected officials will meet Barbada to ask about the content of her performance.

Those subjects could be sensitive, said DeSousa, a member of Montreal's opposition party, Ensemble Montréal.

Meeting slated for August

Barbada said she was contacted Thursday and invited to meet borough officials in August.

The invitation came the day after Montreal writer Katia Grubisic launched an online petition, demanding the story hour be reinstated, that all borough councillors attend it and that "all elected borough officials and employees participate in a recognized awareness and sensitivity program on homophobia and transphobia."

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

Barbada said she's confident borough councillors will allow the event to go ahead, once they realize it is age-appropriate with a positive message.

She said it's surprising that the event was cancelled in the first place.

"I have a kids' TV show. I am a music teacher," she said.

Barbada appears on the reality competition TV show Call Me Mother and hosts the children's show Barbada on Radio-Canada's streaming service ICI Tou.tv.

Having been a drag queen performer for 17 years, she hosts conferences, family shows and other events for a range of audiences, and she said she has not run into this kind of pushback before.

Still, she said, it is an isolated incident. She said she has been getting an outpouring of support online, and three new events were booked quickly, right after local media picked up the story about Saint-Laurent's sudden about-face.

The event in Saint-Laurent was scheduled for early November, so Barbada hopes once officials there see the buzz this has created, they will change their minds and allow the story hour to go on as planned.

Other Montreal libraries, including the Grande Bibliothèque, are still on Barbada's agenda, and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said on Twitter Wednesday that there will "always be room for drag queens in our libraries and venues."

"Through their presence and their art, they contribute to making Montreal a more open, fair and inclusive city," Plante said.

Dorval performance hit with complaints

The event's cancellation comes after the city of Dorval in Montreal's West Island received a wave of complaints in early June, as soon as it announced its library was hosting a story hour with Barbada.

"We received hate mail. We received threats. You name it — we received it," said Sébastien Gauthier, a Dorval spokesperson.

Family-friendly drag events across Canada, many hosted by municipal libraries, have been the target of hateful comments and threats during Pride month, prompting multiple police investigations and renewed concerns about the safety of the LGBTQ community.

Drag Story Hour events are popular at many libraries in the country, and usually feature a performer in drag reading children's books about inclusion. The events have caused only minor controversy in the past, but amid a surge in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies in the U.S., the all-ages drag events have turned into flash points of anger here in Canada.

More than half a dozen libraries from Saint John to Victoria, and the drag performers who were to perform at those venues, have reported being inundated online and over the phone by homophobic slurs and, in some cases, threats of violence.

The cancellation of her show, Barbada said, is a reminder that Canada is influenced by what is going on in the U.S.

"We're not immune to all that negativity and hate."

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