It is peak festival season here in St. John’s, and the new convention centre has been humming along for months. But, between the outdoor stages, food trucks, beer tents, and the posters along the nouveau halls of New Gower Street, a hybrid beast is rising. 

Femfest NL is a four-day celebration of feminism by women for everyone, with the ribs of a conference and the flesh of an arts festival. Though “by women” is already inaccurate. Femfest NL breaks it down as “women (trans, intersex, and cis) and those who experience gendered oppression (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organizing.”

And “for everyone” is accurate but, as I learned recently from Taylor Stocks’ piece in The Independent (July 13th), there are two sides to inclusivity. Both of which are addressed by Femfest NL, as one of the many events will be reserved for women (-identifying) only. To understand how this is an act of inclusion please read the article cited above… [pause for reading] … You have now officially engaged in FemfestNL by celebrating (through listening to) a Newfoundland feminist.

The inspiration for this “Celebration of Feminism” came when Jenny Wright, Executive Director of The St. John’s Status of Women Council/Women’s Centre (SJSOWC) started following a Femfest in Ireland. She watched the excitement and support the National Women’s Council of Ireland generated over social media. Though that event was for young women, Wright felt the pull to look more broadly at what is happening with feminism in NL today, and to address, foster or celebrate that.

The focus on celebrating together is a “form of self-care for the feminist community” says Bridget Clarke (Events Coordinator, SJSOWC). “Everyone is silo-ed doing different work” Wright says, “It’s tangly, hard, and exhausting.” But Wright has seen the advent of new groups and a wave of energy from young feminists around her with the formation of active groups like Smash Patriarchy: an Action Team (SPAAT), and Holy Heart student Olivia Parsons’ Generating Leadership Opportunities for Women (GLOW). At the same time, the past year has been a rough one: from national and local sexual assault cases, to a town igniting as workplace sexual harassment came to light.

Femfest is a response to the great, the good, and the bad. It is a celebration and a making of space in which to “talk about feminism, uncensored, and without backlash.” But Wright adds, it is also a community effort, a taking stock. In that respect this nascent year is not “over-defined.”

The four day festival is built around community submissions solicited by the organizing committee with an open “call-out.” The majority of submissions were accepted “as is” keeping the authors’ autonomy paramount, and with the schedule determined by the volume of submissions.

This is in spirit with the idea of listening to the community, but also makes for what looks like odd editorial decisions within the two day conference portion of the festival, like a panel on Feminist Science and Technology without any women from the STEM fields actually on the panel.

Some talks at the conference are “ripped from the headlines” with Brenda Seymour from the Spaniards’ Bay Volunteer Fire Department slated to discuss “micro-aggressions in the workplace.” Overall, the conference includes a wide range of topics from Midwifery to Social Media in Activism, and should have something of interest for any generation, any “wave,” any feminist, or feminist-curious individual.

Of course it isn’t a celebration without The Arts. There are simultaneous concerts and kick-off parties Thursday night, like the opening reception of Feminisms {Re}Framed art show at Eastern Edge, or “Women’s Writes,” at The Space, which is hosted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi and will feature a juggernaut of local women writers.

The cohesive element is Newfoundland and Labrador. This is by and for those living in the province. And though it is taking place in St john’s, FemfestNL is cognizant of the full province. There is a Labrador contingent putting on the panel “Celebrating Inuit Women’s Leadership in Nunatsiavut” and the eight Status of Women’s Council offices from around the province are holding their AGM the Monday after the conference to allow their staff to attend the festival as a part of their work travel.

The entire Festival is Pay What You Can (PWYC). Making Femfest NL accessible to all was a primary concern, though this has left it with little funding. Negligible funding and a short timeline from conception to actualization has also shaped the conference. It has brought together those who are willing to volunteer their energies and expertise for a cause they care deeply about, but it also means that that expertise and energy will not be strictly remunerated (though the door money collected will partly go towards the musicians, entertainers, etc. at each individual event). We are celebrating feminists. But we still aren’t paying them. So much to celebrate and so much to discuss.

Illustration for The Overcast by Amery Sandford

Illustration for The Overcast by Amery Sandford

Laura Winters’ Keynote Address: “Resistance on the Rock” (Aug. 28, 7pm) 

Laura Winters, Coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Program (SHOP), will give her keynote address, “Resistance on The Rock,” about how Newfoundland women fight back and what resistance looks like in marginalized populations.

SHOP was started by Winters in 2013, under the umbrella of SJSOWC, as a direct frontline service whose mission is to advocate for the human rights of women who do sex work. Winters and SHOP outreach worker Heather Jarvis (bolstered by a crew of highly selected volunteers) act as “system navigators” for program participants as a sort of “bridge over stigma” to healthcare and other services. Winters has trained over 1000 people in the province including RNC frontline officers, Legal Aid lawyers, Crown Attorneys, nurses, and future doctors and social workers through MUN.

SHOP, together with the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, run the WOW line (“Warn Other Workers”), a tip line for sex workers to share information about “bad dates.” They also work with the women inside of the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, running programming every three weeks. Some of the art work created by the incarcerated women will be featured at FemFestNL including group and individual collages, body maps, time capsules (what do you want people in the future to know about you?) and other projects that Winters is keeping under wraps for now.

Through her PhD research (UNB) and her work, Winters confirms that the number one issue sex workers face is stigma, more so than violence. She emphasizes that sex workers are not only sex workers. They are “full and complex people.”

For Winters, this festival is “about celebrating all things feminist. We are always fighting: for funding, against shitty responses to sexual assault, the patriarchy. [Let’s] take a week to celebrate and showcase [the] rich and diverse and amazing work women do.”

For those looking to help support that work, you can donate to SHOP through the St John’s Women’s Centre. Though SHOP has space donated by the Anglican Church, it is always looking for sustainable funding. Its current grant from the provincial government is up in March.