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

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, the stage name of Sébastien Potvin, 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.

She 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.

Borough mayor Alan DeSousa says Saint-Laurent welcomes diversity, but council want more details about Barbada’s show before giving it the green light. (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.

No word from council, Barbada says

Barbada said she hasn’t heard from anyone from the borough, offering to discuss the matter.

“I am just really surprised that it is happening now,” she said. “I have a kids’ TV show. I am a music teacher.”

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

While it is surprising, 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 aboutface.

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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