‘Wild West’ winter carnival theme taken as ‘deeply disturbing’ and ‘offensive’

Indigenous locals and allies say the Vernon winter carnival theme 'Wild West' takes a big step back from reconciliation
Photo: Vernon Winter Carnival’s Wild West theme is under scrutiny for its lack of sensitivity around what was a violent time for Indigenous Peoples. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

Indigenous Peoples and allies in the North Okanagan have been speaking out against the name of this year’s annual Vernon Winter Carnival, “Wild West,” calling it “anti-Indigenous” and “problematic.”

“Systemic racism in our society is evident when organizations of a 61-year-old event still think it’s okay to use problematic themes such as this one,” says Dina Brown, a Syilx woman who works, lives, and practices her culture and ceremonial traditions on her home territory in the Okanagan. 

The City of Vernon is a town of more than 40,000, surrounded by lakes and hills. To the west of the city is the community of the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), a First Nation community with a membership of over 2000. The community is largely made up of Syilx People, the original people of the Suqnaqinx (Okanagan).

The Vernon Winter Carnival is a largely attended annual event that typically takes place over the span of ten days and puts on over 100 activities for people to participate in. Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s event will look a bit different, while the festival and limited activities are promoted through a brochure and across social media. 

Brown, and others concerned with the “Wild West” theme, say it contributes to a colonial narrative.

“I’m surprised that they didn’t think about how this would impact local coloured and marginalized communities whose ancestors literally were impacted by this era,” says Brown. 

“The Wild West makes me think of a time when people came to North America and saw it as a land to be colonized, and people to be colonized and assimilated. It feels really tacky, really offensive.”

Brown says she’s surprised by the lack of engagement with local communities.

“It could have been done differently,” she says.

Why the ‘Wild West’ carries a negative connotation for Indigenous Peoples

Margo Tamez, a Dene Nde’ author, poet, and historian who holds a Masters of Fine Arts and  Doctorate of Philosophy, resides in N’sisooloxw (the place where the creek goes dry), near Vernon. She says the “Wild West” theme is “a public endorsement of en masse historical amnesia and willful disrespect to Indigenous Peoples of this place —the Sqilxw and Syilx.

“This settler predatory ideology of anti-Indigenous mockery of the historical past in Vernon and in Unceded Sqilxw territory is deeply disturbing and unacceptable in a time society is mandated to address the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s] 94 Calls to Action,” Tamez says.

“This is a major fail to enact responsibility, truth, or justice. Vernon — do better.”

Vernon Winter Carnival
For thousands of years Syilx People have been living on the Okanagan territory and continue to be work towards being acknowledged post-colonialism. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

The TRC’s 94 calls to action were intended to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation,” according to the 2015 report. 

Canada has made many promises and commitments to respond to the calls to action and give the word ‘reconciliation’ meaning, especially for Indigenous Peoples. 

In Dec. 2020, the federal government tabled Bill C-15, an Act respecting the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), meant to align Canada’s laws with the international declaration.

According to Brown, the theme of the Vernon Winter Festival takes a step in the opposite direction than the intentions set out by the TRC and UNDRIP.

Language matters, she says, referring to the carnivals’ hashtag challenge that promoted selfies on the land with the hashtag, #mywildwest.  

“Saying ‘My Wild West’ has this notion of wanting to tame us, which contributes to the colonial narrative of asserting control and dominance over the land,” Brown says.

Erik Tamez-Hrabovsky, a settler and ally living in the North Okanagan says this is an issue that all Vernonites must take notice of. 

“All [of this] in the face of the #LandBack movement and the desperate need for us to be righting systemic racism — which should be the keywords for 2021,” he says.

“Whomever chose this theme or even blindly supports this event is complicit. Educate yourselves, Vernon, please, because it is not all in good fun. We should speak up and not be silent!”

Vernon Winter Carnival regrets decision

IndigiNews reached out to the Vernon Winter Carnival’s Executive Director, Vicki Proulx, who says that had she known the extent of upset that the theme caused, she would have done things differently. 

“We have had a few people reach out to us about the theme, feeling like it’s inappropriate possibly,” says Proulx. 

“It was never our intention to create a theme that would ever exclude or put one group of people before another. That’s never the intention of the carnival.”

Proulx says that unlike previous years, this year, the goal of the carnival was to include more Indigenous representation. 

As a part of these efforts, the organizing committee hired an Indigenous liaison through a youth community grant, who Proulx says has been “fantastic at helping us, you know, look to build those partnerships and that relationship.”

“There’s always a fear that someones going to be offended, no matter what, and that’s never the intention,” Proulx says. 

The festival has been running for 61 years, but relationships with local Indigenous communities are just beginning in many ways, she says.

“The culture in the festival is something that has been missing and lacking for pretty much 61 years.”

Moving forward, they hope to boost engagement.

“We look forward to having someone from the Okanagan Indian Band on our board as a permanent director,” Proulx says.

But according to Brown, this year’s theme dissuades future involvement and more efforts need to be made to avoid harm.

“This notion of the ‘Wild West’ and colonialism really fuels systemic racism,” says Brown. ”It’s depicting systemic racism, which at its roots comes from colonialism,” Brown says.

“Syilx People have always had deep ties to this land and this area. Not speaking up, when my grandparents weren’t allowed to speak up in residential school, would be problematic. It just shows me Vernon Winter Carnival is not ready to respect or engage with Syilx People.”