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Local festival organizer shares strategies for success

Pridefest's growth in popularity is no accident, says Susan Rajamaki
2016-07-23 Pride Flag Raising DMH-12
Sault Pride organizer Susan Rajamaki with a photo of Murray Carson and his family. The annual flag raising ceremony at City Hall kicked off the 3rd annual Sault Pride Week on Saturday, July 23, 2016. Donna Hopper/SooToday

In the ten years since it was founded, Sault Pride's membership ranks have swelled immeasurably.

The group, which aspires to unite and empower people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, started small in 2011 when Teddy Syrette won a Downtown Sault Ste. Marie contest and funding to create a new organization that would serve to bring together and support the LGBTQ community in the city.

Syrette's vision at the time was to create safe spaces for all queer folk and foster a supportive environment for the community.

It really took off when the group organized its first Pridefest, which was essentially a protest against then-mayor Debbie Amaroso's refusal to fly a pride flag in support of gay, lesbian and trans athletes competing in the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

"I know we kind of slammed Debbie but, really, I think she just misinterpreted or went too far in her interpretation of statutes on that in 2014," says Sault Pride Chair Susan Rajamaki.

Amaroso has since shown her support for the community by becoming an inclusive wedding officiant.

"We quickly realized that two days were not enough," Rajamaki said. "We went to a seven-day festival and it was very popular."

She attributes the group's success to its inclusiveness, both in its leadership team and its participants. 

"We have a team consisting of all strong personalities but they come together to work toward a common goal," Rajamaki said. 

That goal is to organize events and activities that create safe spaces for LGBTQ people to support each other and just have fun being themselves.

For Rajamaki, it all started much more than 10 years ago.

"Growing up in the Sault and attending Sir James Dunn in the late 70s and early 80s, I didn't feel like I could be myself," she said. "I realized at a young age that I was queer but I didn't feel like it was safe to tell anyone how I felt. I felt like I had to keep it a secret."

When Rajamaki graduated from high school and went to Toronto to continue her education at a post-secondary level, she also left the "closet."

"I joined the pride organization in Toronto," she said. "There I participated in and then helped organize pride events like the pride parade."

When her mother's ailing health brought her back to the Sault about 20 years ago, she was determined to help make sure other young queer people didn't feel compelled to hide who they are.

She joined Jeremy Nadon, Murray Carson and Bob Goddere (known in the community as “Mother Goddere”) to form Algoma Pride and set up queer-friendly events throughout the city.

"When Murray died, Algoma Pride essentially died with him," she said. 

But Syrette revived it with a new name and Rajamaki got involved again. Eventually, Syrette went on to do other things and find other ways to serve the queer community and Rajamaki was elected chair of Sault Pride.

She said that even through the pandemic when public health safety measures prevented gatherings, membership in the group was sustained through social media and virtual meetings.

The return of Pridefest to Sault Ste. Marie this summer was wildly successful with hundreds of people turning out to celebrate pride, renew friendships and revel in each others' company.

When an organization is based so closely on events, Rajamaki said it's essential that the leaders regularly look at how the events are working and what changes could be made.

"Everyone gets a say," she said. "They all have something to contribute."

After each event, the group gathers to look at what worked, what didn't work and what they might do to make the next one better. 

As chair, Rajamaki said her biggest role is to make sure group members remain respectful of each others' sometimes very divergent viewpoints.

That, she said, is the secret to success - finding a balance between strong, and very different personalities through respectful discussion. The best way to do that is to make sure everyone is heard and feels like they have a voice but maintains a respectful dialogue.

"Sometimes you just have to stand back and let them sort it out, but, if they start getting personal or mean, I might have to wade in," she said. 

But the group would go nowhere without the motivation and drive of the strong personalities who lead it, she added.

As successful as Pridefest 2022 was, the group is already meeting and planning for new and different events to add in 2023 and seeing how they can change up events they plan to continue to keep them relevant, fresh and interesting to the LGBTQ community and its allies. 


Carol Martin

About the Author: Carol Martin

Carol has over 20-years experience in journalism, was raised in Sault Ste. Marie, and has also lived and worked in Constance Lake First Nation, Sudbury, and Kingston before returning to her hometown to join the SooToday team in 2004.
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