Featured photo by Mike Tan

Sled Island is an intentional and carefully crafted music festival devoted to inclusivity, safe spaces and unique programming.

In the vast stretch between Vancouver and Toronto exists a sprawling city that is somewhat of a musical secret. As the second largest city in North America after Los Angeles, Calgary is an oil city in the Alberta province of Canada recovering from an economic downturn. Yet, it has a thriving and ever-growing music scene that is often neglected on tour routes. Calgary is home to countless supportive venues, including the impressive Studio Bell National Music Center (a performance space, museum of historical instruments and equipment, and recording studio), and hosts one of the most inclusive and diverse music festivals in North America.

photo by Ian Gregory

Sled Island, whose simple yet potent mission statement is “thoughtful, eclectic programming and independent spirit fused to produce a one-of-a-kind festival experience,” was originated in 2007 by Zak Pashak, a Calgary local and music enthusiast who saw the potential of hosting a festival in Calgary. For many years, the fest was volunteer-run out of Pashak’s house, but eventually grew into Western Canada’s largest independent music and arts festival. Sled Island is a packed five days of programming with more than 250 bands, comedy, film, and art, as well as over 30,000 attendees in more than 35 venues that are generally in walking distance (or a short cab ride at most). It has also grown into a nonprofit with a board of directors, three full-time employees, and hundreds of volunteers.

“Every year it gets more and more established,” says Executive Director Maud Salvi, who was hired in 2013 and works with Shawn Petsche, Festival Manager, and Lindsay Bowman, Director of Marketing and Communications. Salvi oversees all of the nonprofit operations, as well the booking of the festival along with Petsche. “I’m lucky as a woman in my position,” she says. “Our office is 95% women; it’s not even that we seek it out, it’s just the way it is.”

photo by Elyse Bouvier

Salvi says the same thing about Sled Island’s inclusive and diverse programming, which organizers are very mindful of but also has been happening organically for years.“There’s this whole thing right now with festivals patting themselves on the back for becoming gender balanced, and it’s like…ugh. With Sled, it’s a mix of the bands that we like, but once all the offers are sent we look at what is confirmed and ask, ‘Do we have a balance?’ Not just with gender, but with all representation,” says Salvi. 

In 2014, Kathleen Hanna—frontwoman in The Julie Ruin, Bikini Kill, and Le Tigre, as well as riot grrrl icon—was chosen as Sled Island’s guest curator, a position in which the artist picks some of their favorite bands to play. Salvi says that this choice was a clear statement regarding a balance in programming, and was reflected in their submissions that year and all following years, with an immediate shift toward more women and nonbinary musicians applying. When choosing guest curators, organizers aim to bring in musicians who are musically curious, eclectic, and constantly seeking out new bands, and will bring something new with their knowledge of music and art—which is why Salvi, along with her two colleagues, picked the experimental noise/pop Deerhoof as this year’s guest curators.

photo by Crystal Sujata

“We chose bands who have not been to Calgary, and mainly from the U.S.—and of course we wanted to see them, too!” says Deerhoof singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki. Wye Oak, Cherry Glazerr, Empath, and Prissy Whip are just a few of the bands they chose to play, and the band attended as many curated shows as possible. Deerhoof also improvised live to a World Cup soccer game being shown at one of the venues, creating a cacophony of hilarity and suspense. “Sled Island is not a commercial festival,” says Matsuzaki. “They are true music supporters and lovers. It’s nice that the Canadian government supports arts and music.”

photo by Allison Seto

Other performances at Sled Island included indie veteran Mary Timony (Helium, Ex Hex), atmospheric Grouper, high-energy Afro-Colombian beats from Lido Pimienta, and the classic-rock leaning Bat Fangs. In general, organizers try to stray from music darlings flooding the press. “To be truthful, it’s our vision,” says Salvi. “But it’s also a challenge that we turn into a strength; we maybe have one or two big bands a year in Calgary, so we have to fly in people for Sled Island. It’s so much more expensive, but at the same you’re absolutely not reliant on who’s touring and who’s active.” Instead, organizers focused on diversifying the fest with new acts and underrepresented voices, including support for Indigenous musicians and artists by working with local nonprofit Indigenous Resilience in Music (IRIM). This year’s fest included land acknowledgements in most written material, a ceremonial blessing closed to the public, and IRIM’s involvement in the programming committee.

photo by Lucia Juliao

Representation is so important to Calgary in terms of their location, their scene, and the encouragement of under acknowledged musicians. Sled Island also works with Femme Wave, a local feminist arts festival started in 2015 by co-founders and co-artistic directors Kaely Cormack and Hayley Muir, who used Sled Island’s multi-day, multi-venue model to create their own festival, and the two have been partners and idea-sharers ever since. Femme Wave’s showcase at Sled Island this year included headliner Cherry Glazerr with Peach Kelli Pop, BB, and Glaux.

“There has been an inspiring push to really listen to artists that are women and non-binary, to listen enthusiastically, with attention and respect,” says Ella Coye of Edmonton, three hours of north of Calgary, who plays as Sister Ray and opened for Mount Eerie at this year’s fest. “The questions that are being asked are no longer always regarding what it’s like making music as a woman, but instead what the music is about, and why those voices are important.”

Outside of offering a platform for underrepresented voices, Sled Island also aims to make that platform as safe as possible for all artists and attendees. After years of working behind the scenes on creating a safer space, Sled Island initiated an official policy at last year’s fest in response to their community’s concerns. “People expect Sled Island to be leaders in terms of practice, which is a lot of responsibility and pressure,” says Salvi. “But that comes with having such an amazing community of supporters, and with that love comes the expectation of us being great in terms of community.” Two years ago, Sled Island started working with local collective SASS (Society for the Advocacy of Safer Spaces) and Calgary’s Centre for Sexuality (formerly known as the Calgary Sexual Health Centre) as their main partners in implementing and enforcing safer space guidelines and policies. According to Veronica Lawrence, co-founder of SASS, Sled Island has become one of the most comprehensive safer spaces in North America: “Sled has always been incredible at partnering with grassroots organizations as an early adopter. So when the Centre for Sexuality really started pushing their Bystander Intervention work in the nightlife community, Sled Island took notice and brought them in.” And aside from addressing sexual violence in their safer space policy, Sled Island has also worked with other local organizations, including Indigenous Resilience in Music and Femme Wave, to address the concerns and inclusion all participants and attendees. 

photo by David Youn

Sled Island’s partnership with the Centre for Sexuality began informally three years ago when Emily Ophus, Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator, facilitated a panel on safer festival spaces and offered a free Community Bystander Interventions workshop for Sled Island attendees. The two decided to formally partner in 2017, which resulted in the creation of the safer space policy and the formal training of all of Sled Island’s core staff, volunteers, and most of the hosting venues on how to recognize and respond to sexual harassment and violence. In the Community Bystander training, Sled Island staff gained more of an awareness and recognition of how media and society perpetuate harmful messages about consent, relationships, and sexual violence. Participants learned about the bystander effect—in which bystanders are less likely to help an individual when others are present—and some common barriers to intervention, as well as tools to recognize when and how they can be active bystanders.  “I think that participants often leave the training feeling more empowered to address harmful behavior in ways that feel safe and comfortable for them, says Ophus. “To me, that is the goal, as I believe a community-based approach to addressing sexual violence encourages more social responsibility.”

Sled Island has also committed to ensuring that all of the venue hosts at the festival are trained by the Centre for Sexuality through their Safer Establishments workshop, recognizing that it is important for all staff to attend every year to continue the conversations. Along with this, all venues have the safer space policy posted in every bathroom: “With such a large festival, it’s a huge undertaking, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” says Kaely Cormack of Femme Wave, who has also worked with SASS and the Centre for Sexuality with their own festival, acknowledging the work Sled Island has put into backing up their words with action.

Lawrence says that although Sled Island continues to do the work on their end, venues don’t always fully comply. “With the increased availability of free education around preventing sexual harassment and assault, it’s difficult for me to understand why every venue in the city hasn’t trained their entire staff on bystander intervention. Not only does it empower staff to support patrons, but it demonstrates to the community that a space is dedicated to ensuring the safety of their customers,” says Lawrence.   

photo by David Youn

It’s important to note that Sled Island’s policy and guidelines are far from perfect. During this year’s fest, a long-time participating venue was called out on social media for not holding up to the safer space standards. “We must work to remove our longstanding personal bias towards the people and spaces that we have grown comfortable with, and remind ourselves that those people can be abusers, and that the spaces we have historically felt safe in are not always safe for all,” says Ella Coye.

Ophus and Salvi both mention that, as with most safer space policies, theirs is a living document that will constantly evolve with the needs and feedback of the community. “We are all learning and growing together in this process, which is what I hope will continue to happen as we move forward with this partnership,” says Ophus. “Each year, we will look at the policy and make any necessary changes to remain responsive to the community. Sexual harassment and violence (and oppressive behavior in general) occur in every space we occupy, whether overt or more insidious, and to think it doesn’t is ignoring what is really going on in society. One would think that any festival would want to be proactive and equip their staff and volunteers with skills that will be helpful in a variety of contexts. Other festivals and organizations can look to Sled as leaders who are making safer spaces a priority.”

photo by Allison Seto

Sled Island is most certainly on the pulse of what is happening in our society as a whole, in terms of both politics and music. Their dedication to enforcing an active safer space policy that includes the work and participation of all staff and volunteers, and their commitment to continuing improvement, is a level of involvement and respect that should be used as a model for all festivals throughout North America and beyond. The success of Sled Island has most certainly put Calgary on the map, with an isolated geographical location used to its advantage, the inclusion of Indigenous people, and a devotion to diverse and unique programming that results in an unparalleled five days filled with a superior positive energy. “In my mind, we couldn’t replicate it in a different city,” says Salvi.

“Everything happens a little delayed in Calgary, but as a result people are so stoked and supportive. They’re happy that there’s something more happen. That spirit—you can feel it.”