Creating safer spaces a priority at Manitoba music festivals


As the air warms and laying in the grass becomes a comfortable and inviting possibility, the music festival buzz begins.

From the beginning of tick season to the end of the wasps, almost every weekend has a lineup of stellar acts playing no more than half a tank of gas away. Whether you intend to spend your festival time napping under trees or twirling glow sticks until your hands callous, there is a festival out there for you.

While crowds of sunscreen-lathered individuals and coolers of Coors Banquet can lead to some nice friendly fun times, music festivals can also be a breeding ground for unsafe spaces and sexual violence. Every summer, rumours spread of drugged cookies being offered and headlines pop up about assaults. People are groped while trying to enjoy their favourite band and lewd cat calls are made uninvited to individuals just trying to beat the heat.

Thankfully, efforts are being made to change this.

“When music festivals happen there’s a sort of petri dish effect that goes on,” Hema Vyas explains. Vyas is a co-founder of the Red Tent Project, a collective that operates through the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF) to promote safe spaces. “It’s like a smaller version of our society and that means that although there’s really great things about music festivals, unfortunately that negativity can still be a part of it.”

Located in the infamous WFF festival campground, the Red Tent Project operates as a resource centre for sexual education and also as a sanctuary for women and trans-identified folk to chill if they need a break from the chaos of the party campground atmosphere.

While music festivals do tend to act as a mini reflection of society, where sexual assault is pervasive, sexual violence can escalate at these events due to substance abuse and to the anonymous nature of the festival.

“It’s this place where it’s nobody’s home, it’s a temporary space,” Jodie Layne says. “I think that people sometimes might feel it’s more permissible to do things that they wouldn’t normally do in this random space.”

Layne is an advocate for women’s and LGBT rights, a co-founder and co-director of Rainbow Trout Music Festival (RTMF), a sex educator, writer and a finalist of CBC’s Manitoba’s Future 40.

RTMF, which is fast becoming one of the most popular festivals of the summer, operates under a Safer Space Policy and actively communicates its position as an atmosphere where sexual violence will not be tolerated.

“We make sure that we are able to respond to concerns or reports of violence appropriately,” Layne states. “Some of the ways we’ve tried to do that are by making the Safer Spaces statement and having a procedure readily available.”

For the Red Tent Project, located at Manitoba’s biggest music festival, a statement of safety isn’t always enough. New this year, the WFF has a first aid response team available 24/7. Staffed with counsellors from the sexual assault crisis program at Klinic, both resources are part of the health services crew at the festival.

“Knowing that the Folk Fest is committed to the ideas of gender equality and support for people who have dealt with sexual harassment or abuse at the festival is really important,” Vyas says. “It’s really important to create these safer spaces.”

Apart from the act of controlled environments, Vyas feels that education is also critical. To train staffers and volunteers to view sexual assault through an educated and aware lens while going about their work would greatly improve both safety and alter the habit of victimization.

“It would steer the conversation away from victimizing people and more towards actively supporting individuals,” Vyas explains.

As Layne says, a space can only be as safe as the people that are in it.

“You are not going to be able to make any space perfectly safe or make anybody enlightened or aware of the issue at a music festival,” Layne says. “But it’s not going to stop us from trying.”

To learn more visit either the Red Tent Project or Safer Spaces Winnipeg on Facebook.

Part of the series: The 7th Annual Summer Festival Guide

Published in Volume 69, Number 27 of The Uniter (June 3, 2015)

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