Culture | Girls and non-binary youth rock camp

A Montreal camp tackles discrimination from the ground up

The music industry has a major diversity problem, according to Montreal musicians Emma Bronson and Éloise Choquette. Whether it’s performing on stage or setting up gear and running sound, “women and marginalized people have to work twice as hard just to prove that they’re competent, that they can do their job,” says Choquette. According to Bronson, “It’s really frustrating because you automatically just don’t feel welcome in those spaces.”

A music camp for girls and gender non-conforming youth

Bronson and Choquette are working to change that. They both work on the board of Rock Camp for Girls and Gender Non-Conforming Youth Montreal (RCFG*), an organization celebrating its tenth year promoting gender- and racially-inclusive spaces for youth to explore music. Says Bronson, “In a world where men already have a lot of spaces where they’re empowered like, inherently, there is just a need for a space in the music industry for girls to learn.”

“We’re really trying to create a safe space where girls and gender-nonconforming youth can be themselves and unapologetic about themselves, it’s a space that doesn’t really exist anywhere.” — Choquette

The organization runs programming throughout the year, but the main event takes place each summer for one week at the end of July. Over seven days, girls and genderfluid youth ages 10-17 have an opportunity to write a song, form a band, get individual instruction on their respective instruments, perform on stage, and record in a studio, all under the guidance of the camp’s many volunteer workshop leaders.

Anti-oppression and empowerment practices

RCFG* is built around core principles of gender and racial empowerment and anti-oppression. Besides working on music-related skills, campers also take part in workshops on topics ranging from intersectional feminism to income inequality. Equity and social justice are taken very seriously across the entire organization; according to Choquette, when planning new activities of any kind, “first thing on our mind is ‘how can we be as anti-oppressive as we can.'” In line with this commitment, the RCFG* website explicitly states that leadership positions are reserved for individuals who are women or genderqueer, while “individuals who identify as cisgender men are welcome to apply for non-leadership positions.”

In the last few years there has also been a push to address an underrepresentation of non-white people in the organization, after sustained criticism concerning a lack of racial diversity. Most seats on the board are now held by people of colour (POC), as are two of the three paid positions in the organization. “I think the biggest thing is like representation,” says Bronson, who herself is brown. “Our board is mostly of colour, [as well as] a lot of the [volunteers and staff] that we recruited for camp so the campers can learn from and talk to, take workshops from [POC]” The idea is that the workshops “are not only given by people of colour, but are also about race issues”.

A response to a male-dominated industry

Bronson and Choquette echo longstanding claims that women and genderqueer folks are underrepresented on stages and in sound and recording positions in the music industry, and that this stems from the ways in which we treat boys differently from girls or gender non-conforming youth. The pair says that people don’t realize that men are “always encouraged to do stuff. Especially, you know, sound engineering, everything that’s super technical and everything. As girls, or gender non-conforming people, we’re like kinda told that ‘mmmh, maybe you should keep doing […][…] that aspect that’s not about the technical stuff.’”

The numbers back up these claims. In a 2018 study by U.S. thinktank The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, it was shown that women only make up 17% of artists appearing in songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 for 2017. The study found that women were even more underrepresented as producers; the ratio for that role in 2017 was 49 men to every 1 woman.

“The music industry’s not going to make the space. We need to make the space, and after that they’re like ‘ok, these people have a voice’ — because we made it.” — Choquette

This disparity is largely because of the way many people perceive any musician who isn’t a man, in Bronson’s view. “People just assume that you don’t know what you’re doing. People just assume that you’re amateur, that you haven’t been doing this for very long, that they know better than you […] before they even talk to you.” A former camper herself, she says that “Rock Camp equips you for that. It’s equipped me to go to my shows and stand up for myself.”

Partnership with Concordia

In its tenth year this summer, RCFG* is going to look a lot different from its beginnings in basements and jam spaces scattered throughout the Plateau. For the last few years the camp has taken place at La Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo, but these venues have been replaced this year by a new partnership with Concordia University. The agreement provides RCFG* with gear, instruments, recording studios, and, importantly, free space — a major boost to an organization that walks a thin line between having enough money to fund its activities, and keeping participation costs as low as possible for the sake of accessibility.

Concordia’s involvement is organized by Eldad Tsabary, the coordinator of the Electroacoustics Department, which has been criticized internally for having an old-boys’-club mentality. Current and former students have indicated that they feel unwelcome as women or GNC (gender non-conforming people), for reasons including the overwhelming majority of men among faculty and students in the department, and the faculty’s unwillingness to teach works by non-male composers. “[Tsabary] is really committed to change the Electroacoustics department that’s mostly men, cis men […] there’s been a lot of criticism from women and gender non-conforming folks that Concordia, especially the Electroacoustics program, is not inclusive,” says Choquette. “A partnership with Rock Camp would really help [show] that [they] are committed to this change and want to welcome more women and gender non-conforming folk in [their] space.”

RCFG* and accessibility: tackling geography, finances and colonialism

The building Concordia offers to RCFG* is more physically accessible than previous years’ venues, but especially crucial to the camp’s mandate is the downtown campus’ proximity to neighbourhoods that are home to Montreal’s many immigrant communities and communities of colour. Reflecting on the last ten years, Choquette and Bronson point out that “the people who were coming to camp were people living in Plateau […] it was very middle-class, white, kind of ‘woke’ people.” For Choquette, “it was a start, and like I feel like as we grew we [thought:] ‘do we want this space to be for only these people, or do we want to make it really inclusive and offer this programming to marginalized people?'” The camp leadership envisions possibly even moving locations each summer, to different neighbourhoods like Cote-des-Neiges and Hochelaga or as far as Kahnawake.

Besides geographical accessibility, RCFG* tries to make sure that finances are not an obstacle to any youth wanting to attend camp. The organization has thus far been able to offer full scholarships to any families that ask for it (sometimes around a third of the campers), and waives camp fees entirely for Indigenous participants. “We’re trying to have a reflection on colonialism and how it affects Indigenous people to this day, how we still live in a colonial space and everything, we wanted to address it head-on by making it free. […] It’s the least we can do.” The board has also recently made the decision to allocate a percentage of fundraising income to contribute directly to Indigenous individuals as reparations for colonialism.

Reaching out to LGBTQIA+ youth in conservative families

As the organization’s reach continues to grow beyond Le Plateau, Choquette anticipates more challenging conversations with youth and parents. Campers have dropped out in the past because of differing comfort levels with topics like gender diversity and the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. “The youth were not the problem necessarily […] but I think the parents weren’t prepared for something that’s not music.” Rock Camp is a “very queer and gender-inclusive space [and] we do talk about these issues on the first day”, which can run counter to the sensibilities of some more prejudiced parents. “It’s a very hard line to negotiate, because often youth in conservative families are the ones who most need our programming, because they are in spaces were they cannot have these discussions about gender and sexuality, and a lot of things about feminism and inclusivity. So we are acutely aware that like, these youth will probably never be able to attend camp because we are called Rock Camp for Girls and Gender Non-Conforming Youth and we are clear about being very inclusive and LGBTQ friendly.” Bronson says it again comes down to representation. “A lot of people just haven’t met openly queer people, or they have but they don’t know, and it’s important for them to be like, ‘oh, you’re really cool, this isn’t something to be scared of.”

Looking beyond and making space

Both Choquette and Bronson are excited for this year’s camp, and for the future. They talk about further expansion (this year’s record-setting 41 campers is already more than a 30% jump in participants from last year), and are considering adding a second week of camp and the possibility of a year-round space.

Quotations were edited for clarity.