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Toronto Pride Parade grand marshal Kent Monkman opts to be himself

Cree artist Kent Monkman, seen in his Toronto studio, will be the grand marshal at this year’s Toronto Pride parade.

The Cree artist says this year's parade is an opportunity to bring recognition to Indigenous people during Canada 150

A few years ago, he turned it down, but this time, artist Kent Monkman couldn't refuse the invitation to be grand marshal at Toronto's Pride Parade. He sees this year, Canada's 150th birthday, as the perfect opportunity to use the parade to put Indigenous people, their history and their future front and centre.

Mr. Monkman was born in Ontario but spent much of his younger years in Manitoba. As a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation, Mr. Monkman is Cree, queer, two-spirited and Canadian.

His alter-drag-ego is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, who he paints into many of his works. Miss Chief allows the 51-year-old to transcend time and travel back toward the perspective of his ancestors.

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Mr. Monkman's alter-drag-ego is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Supplied by Kent Monkman

He says that the oppressive constraints of Euro-religious thoughts many settlers brought with them to North America have been responsible for the homophobia that is still prominent today.

His painted images of priests and police officers ripping Indigenous youth from the arms of their parents are on display across the country as part of his exhibit, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, a response to Canada's 150th birthday.

The images in his new collection, The Rendezvous, show a tribe of humans chaotically frolicking in nature during an undated time that could be either pre- or postcolonial Canada. Just finished this week, The Rendezvous is currently being shipped across the continent where it will be on display in Santa Fe, N.M., until September.

What does it feel like, now that you are actually going to lead Sunday's Pride Parade in Toronto?

I agreed to do it because I felt like it was Canada 150. It would be a good year to message about my project, which is a response project to Canada 150 and I think it is important to have an Indigenous presence. So I originally thought I was going to do it as [my alter-drag-ego] Miss Chief and do a performance piece, but for a number of reasons it seemed to become a bad idea. You know, with the costs involved and her in the sun for four hours, melting, so I thought okay …

Some people can pull that off.

For sure, and that wasn't really my biggest concern. But I thought, if I was going to do it, it had to be done well because it is all about that image, presenting that image properly and I just felt like I was losing people and not having a budget to do it the way I wanted to. So I just decided that I would go as boring old Kent. We are getting some volunteers. And so we are going to have a group of daddies marching with the beavers. And the beavers are going to be peeing on the daddies.

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Mr. Monkman says he wants to bring Canadians’ focus to Indigenous issues, which is why he agreed to lead the Toronto Pride Parade this year.

Daddies? As in the Fathers of Confederation?

The Fathers of Confederation. But you know a very loose interpretation of that. So, yeah, we are just going to be marching with a different range of people. Indigenous people. Men. Women. All genders. People dressing in what they think their idea of what Canada is. A loose interpretation.

I want to talk about identity. How do you identify as Cree?

Well, I was born that way. I mean I don't change how I identify, I just am that. So whatever I do, I am informed by being Cree. Who I am and where I am from. So everything that I do is planned by being born that way. I don't change anything that I do, I just do what I do. That's how my identity was born.

Where does being Canadian fit into all of that?

Well, I have a Canadian passport. I live inside the boundaries of this nation called Canada. But, you know, I feel like my identity is stronger as being a part of a Cree nation. So I think this was the year to make a project to speak about Canadian policies that were very devastating to Indigenous people. So I don't identify myself as with Canadian society because Canadians are the ones who are responsible for the colonial policies that were genocidal against Indigenous people.

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Mr. Monkman’s new collection, The Rendezvous, will be on display in Santa Fe, N.M., until September.

Tell me about Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

I created her because I wanted an empowered persona that I could live in, time travel through. But specifically in the period of the 19th century because I was looking at artists like George Catlin, and a number of others, who were painting themselves into their work as they were also looking at Indigenous North America as their subject. So it was a way of reversing the gaze, basically creating an artistic persona that could represent that third gender that existed in Indigenous societies and also talk about two-spirited sexuality, two-spirited people.

You're leading the Pride parade, a year after Black Lives Matter Toronto was the Honorary Group. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I want to put the focus back on Indigenous people and this is why I decided to do it, or agreed to do it this year. I felt this is a year to really make a statement. Indigenous people need to be recognized by Canadians as they celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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