INNISFAIL – Samantha Olson is a 14-year-old Innisfail high school student who is already a winner in her young life.
She earned the town’s 2020 community Leaders of Tomorrow Award for her vital role on the community’s Youth Action Committee, created to give youth a greater sense of belonging in Innisfail.
On June 26, she stepped up again to speak publicly at the Pride at the Cottage event at The Coffee Cottage, the town’s first-ever Pride celebration.
“Sexuality, and gender, is a spectrum. You can identify as multiple, or no strict sexuality if you want,” she told a large audience for the first time about her sexuality. “Everyone views it differently. I have chosen to identify as pansexual.”
The crowd roared its approval for the young teen’s choice and courage. Minutes earlier Olson was nerve-wracked before hitting the stage but afterward she felt free and exuberant.
“Just be you,” she declared about the message she wanted to give for everyone, both young and old. “In the end you don’t need a label. Just be you, despite what others think. That’s what matters.”
Pride at the Cottage, created to honour lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and 2-spirited (LGBTQ2+) communities, was in fact an event tailored for everyone.
The event was organized by Dale Dunham, co-owner of The Coffee Cottage, and his life and business partner Shaun Steen.
The free all-day event began in the morning with introductory best wishes from mayor Jim Romane. There was an exhibition called ‘Queer From Here’ of high-profile public figures who identify themselves as LGBTQ2+. There were many speeches, a family barbecue, professional musical entertainment from award-winning rock pianist Curtis Labelle and topped off with dazzling drag performances from Mr. Terri Stevens, Mona Moore (Trevor) and Kelli EleTrix.
About 200 citizens attended, but organizers were vigilant to ensure there was never more than 150 at a time. Security conducted head counts to maintain compliance with provincial COVID restrictions.
“Dale and I are just blown over by the amount of support from people who have come to celebrate Pride, not only from the community but also as allies as well,” said Steen. “We expected maybe 20 or 30 people, and we’ve actually had to turn people away.”
Pride at the Cottage also attracted out-of-towners, like Red Deerians Dianne Macaulay and Sabrina Samuel, who came to support Innisfail’s LGBTQ2+ community. Macaulay noted her city did not have a Pride celebration in June, which is being recognized nationally as Pride Month.
“I am here for some family members and friends who are active members of LGBTQ, and I am a strong advocate because I feel this is a very important topic that needs a lot of support,” said Macaulay, a trustee with the Red Deer Public District School board. “There is still a lot of education mis-knowledge about it.”
And there were many everyday local citizens who attended to gain more awareness about LGBTQ2+ issues. Grandmother Maree Vadeboncoeur came for family members, including one now questioning her sexual identity.
Melissa Kerkhoff attended with her four children because it was previously unheard of to have a Pride celebration in a small rural Alberta community.
“This is to let them know there are all types of people in the world and it doesn’t matter who you are, who you love and that everybody should be included,” said Kerkhoff. “There should be no hate in the world. There should always be love for everybody, no matter what race you are or what your sexuality is.”
And those thoughts aligned perfectly with Tasha Busch, a member of the town’s rejuvenated Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee that is addressing racism and promoting inclusiveness and acceptance in the community.
“Pride is a big part of that. This was obviously a natural tie,” said Busch, who made a presentation at the event on behalf of co-chair Sue Haddow. She said the Pride event was a big step forward for the community.
“This is huge. Seeing the Pride flag flying at town hall, and the balloons here at the celebration, it does show our growth in the sense of ‘look how far we’ve come from the anti-racism rally we had,” she said. “We are feeling the momentum.”