Burlesque community comes together in support of MMIWG

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The Montreal burlesque community came together for a colourful evening of erotic dance, featuring an entirely Indigenous line-up, on May 4. The event was a fundraiser for the Iskweu project, which aims to offer harm reduction practices and a safe space for Indigenous women working in the city’s sex industry.

“It’s definitely a different kind of event for supporting the shelter,” said Jessica Quijano with a laugh. Quijano heads the Iskweu Project, a branch of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network’s Justice Committee that collaborates with the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM).

The Iskweu project supports families and victims of women who have disappeared or were murdered in or around Montreal.

Quijano’s work includes establishing a network of people and organizations focused on helping sex workers and people in situations of homelessness, following up with police reports, and offering support and referrals to clients.

Quijano explained that most of the women who are at risk of disappearing or being murdered are active in the sex industry, and because of the NWSM’s policies on abstinence from drugs and alcohol, these women sometimes have no place to turn to if they’re in need.

Further complicating things for the city’s most vulnerable, The Open Door, a resource centre for homeless people and sex workers near Cabot Square, is moving across town to Milton Park. This leaves a gap in services offered for those who access the Open Door regularly.

“We’re focusing more on prevention when we’re looking at the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” Quijano said. She went on to explain that the money raised at the burlesque event would go towards alternative sources of harm reduction for sex workers.

Examples of what this could look like includes hiring an outreach worker for evening shifts, since violence most often happens in the evening or at night, or renting a hotel room where sex workers can go to either see a nurse or talk to someone they trust. The goal is to eventually raise enough funds to open a 24-hour crisis centre that is street-based and where women can go to get help, even if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

After connecting with Quijano, Indigenous burlesque dancer Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière found herself very much on board for a fundraising event, and she co-produced the show with Sugar Vixen, who is also Indigenous.

The event took place at the Wiggle Room on St. Laurent Boulevard – the country’s only cabaret space offering a burlesque show six nights of the week. The event was realized in the context of the Wiggle Room’s Feel Good Fridays, a charity happening that takes place once a month. Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière both hosted and performed, and she collaborated with Sugar Vixen to organize the all-Indigenous line-up, which included dancers from all over the Eastern Door.

Harlow Holiday made the four-and-half-hour drive from Syracuse, New York, to perform at the event. “Personally, it’s huge for me. I came for the cause, the opportunity, not to mention sharing the stage with these powerhouses. I feel pretty awesome!” Harlow Holiday said after the event.

Holiday explained that burlesque has a positive transformative power for her, and that it’s especially significant in the context of colonial history and the impact that it’s had on Indigenous people.

“Residential schools made space for body-shaming the Indigenous woman. It’s okay for a Native woman to show her body, because it’s her body,” said Holiday.

For Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière, burlesque creates a conversation that decolonizes Indigenous women’s sexuality, especially in reference to trauma, rape and murder. Lou Lou la Duchesse de Rière has been working as a performer for over 10 years, and often travels for work.

“Our mandate is to educate,” she told the Nation. “Because sex work, it’s happened, it’s happening, and some sex workers have really dangerous working conditions. Sexual empowerment is a strong tool, and burlesque, well, it’s healthy, it’s fun, and it’s safe.”

Quijano stressed the importance of moving towards the decriminalization of sex work, and fostering sex-positive attitudes, especially towards Indigenous women. In the sex industry, Quijano clarified, “Indigenous women are seen as disposable, and some people think they deserve it, like they were asking for it. There’s a lot of stigma.”

Quijano was enthused by the performance, and happy with the turnout. The event raised over $1200.

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