Navigating Flotilla: Multi-lingualism and Safe(r) Spaces

By Amanda Shore

Bernard Labelle’s bilingual interpretation team. Photo: Will Baker

Bernard Labelle’s bilingual interpretation team. Photo: Will Baker

Sign Language interpretation at Todd Lester’s presentation. Photo: Will Baker.

Sign Language interpretation at Todd Lester’s presentation. Photo: Will Baker.

Over the course of four days from September 21st - 24th, 2017, Flotilla presented over 40 contemporary art installations, performances, artists talks, presentations, and workshops to over 300 delegates and 2000 visitors and participants. Events took place in public spaces, abandoned buildings, home spaces, galleries, and storefronts, by land, water and airwaves. There were a number of challenges that we faced when created a decentred and multi-venue conference, in order to create a network of spaces that were approachable, and with multiple access points. In order to accommodate multiple projects happening simultaneously, we counter-programmed intimate events for small groups nearby events with for large audiences, allowing for a flow of foot traffic as delegates chose their own adventure. Accessibility ramps  had to be custom-built in many storefront spaces throughout downtown Charlottetown, guard rails and on-ramps had to be ordered for floating docks, French/English translation was arranged for all written material as well as live translators for spoken word, sign language interpreters were flown in from out of province to support the needs of Deaf and hard-of-hearing artists, weather had to be carefully monitored for outdoor events, our safe(r) spaces policy was created through consultation, all ages and alcohol free areas were established, all-gender washrooms were made available in all venues, and subsidized passes were made available for participants needing financial assistance.  


One of the major challenges of Flotilla’s “choose your own adventure” format was finding a multiple venues that were accessible to participants with mobility needs. This was particularly difficult in some of the smaller or less finished venues such as empty storefronts and rented houses. Flotilla attracted participants from as far away as Vancouver, Iceland, and Berlin many of whom had never been to Charlottetown before. Unlike a centralized conference style event, Flotilla events were interspersed throughout many smaller spaces across the downtown area, some of which were not clearly visible to someone navigating through the city’s side streets and shorelines for the first time.

It was critical that we considered these issues when designing our maps, websites, and information that was distributed to participants. While all venues were made as accessible as possible through building ramps and guard rails, there were a few that were not as easy to access due to the diversity of spaces that we were working with. Flotilla’s website and printed material were labeled to identify spaces that were inaccessible or difficult to access with wheelchairs or other mobility aids. We created intimate RSVP events, and were able to determine the needs of delegates who had completed an access survey upon registration. Rather than creating events for an imaginary audience, we programmed events with the specific needs of our individual delegates in mind.

Flotilla’s core team and programming committee intentionally integrated the smaller venues into clusters, bringing together a cross-section of entry points in each ‘district’. There is a reason why Charlottetown’s artist-run centre is called this town is small. For better or for worse, the small town feeling is a part of Charlottetown’s identity, which Flotilla aimed to highlight the geographic and social scale of the city.

Safety Squids. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Safety Squids. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.


Becka Viau as a Safety Squid. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Becka Viau as a Safety Squid. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Given the limited sexual health resources on PEI, the Atlantis team collaborated across multiple provinces to create Flotilla’s safe(r) spaces policy. By drawing from the collective knowledge of multiple artist-run centres across different provinces, Flotilla facilitated resource sharing across the Atlantic. After discussions with Halifax’s Consent Kitties, Becka Viau worked with Candice Hagan & Sharlene Kelly to create the Safety Squids. Hagan and Kelly had existing training and experience in equity and anti-oppression on PEI, and following the Consent Kitties model, they worked with Flotilla to develop a similar support system in our venues. The Safety Squids were directly inspired by the Consent Kitties in that they functioned as a group of volunteers who made themselves visible by wearing goofy, bright orange squid costumes, and they were identified through Flotilla’s announcements and printed material as people who were committed to promoting consent and supporting people who may feel unsafe for any reason. The Consent Kitties model had been a huge success in many other festivals in the Atlantic such as Evolve Festival, as a group of sober volunteers who act as a first point of contact for visitors who don’t want to approach a formal security guard or police.

Flotilla’s safe(r) spaces Policy was translated and included in all of the delegate tote bags, and extra copies were printed and posted at information tables, and in visible areas of as many venues as possible.


With events occurring simultaneously, Flotilla needed to mobilize a flexible interpretation system that could travel between venues, and accommodate unpredictable wind and weather at short notice. Bernard Labelle, one of the only two individuals who offers simultaneous translation in English and French on PEI, set up a mobile system with equipment for up to 30 people, and Flotilla offered capsule translation at select locations. Flotilla demanded linguistic generosity from participants, given that not all events offered simultaneous interpretation, but immersive exhibitions and non-verbal events were positioned in proximity to one another so that participants could drift between events given their access needs.  

It was identified in the early planning stages that social spaces at bilingual conferences often become anglophone spaces, and in response to this observation, we intentionally created social gatherings at Flotilla which were hosted by francophone participants, including a Acadian/Métis kitchen party hosted by the IPAC and AGAVF at Struts Gallery; a dinner hosted by Galerie Sans Nom featuring plates designed by artist Mathieu Leger; and a reading group series by Verticale.


The planning stage for Flotilla took place during the roll out of Canada Council’s new funding model in 2017. The growing pains that came with this new funding model made it difficult to identify and access the new funding programs for artists with disabilities. Flotilla navigated these changes in partnership with Tiphaine Girault, director of SPiLL.PROpagation, a non-profit arts organization based in Gatineau, QC which activates a Deaf cultural presence within the broader arts and culture landscapes. While there were other hard of hearing participants at Flotilla, in our access survey at registration Girault was the only participant who indicated a need for sign language interpretation. Through lengthy conversations with Girault, we contracted interpreters who would follow her to the events she wished to witness, and we advertised those public events as having ASL interpretation. As a presenter at Flotilla, Girault brought forward active discussions about phonocentrism within the visual arts community, and presented programs which engage Deaf artists on their own terms.


“Language isn’t just an isolated entity, it comes with culture”
— Tiphaine Girault, “Deconstructing Phonocentrism: Sign Language Rights, Accessibility and the Arts,” Flotilla, verbally interpreted from ASL, 2017.

In order to provide American Sign Language and Langue des signes québecois, Flotilla contracted interpreters from Nova Scotia and Quebec. In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador there are provincial associations which act as service providers for sign language interpretation, but Prince Edward Island lacks such an organization with centralized interpretation support for Deaf and hard of hearing artists. In 2018, Marcia Carroll, the executive director of the PEI Council of People with Disabilities stated that the council only knows two sign language interpreters on the island. Through resource sharing and collaboration with artist-run centres and practitioners in the Atlantic and Quebec, we customized the interpretation plan to suit Girault’s needs.

In Carmen Papalia’s tenants of Open Access, the artist explains that “Open Access relies on those present, what their needs are and how they can find support with each other and in their communities. It is a perpetual negotiation of trust between those who practice support as a mutual exchange.” Flotilla’s access policy was not a perfect rulebook. We shaped our programming schedule around the needs of those in attendance, and we had to be prepared to troubleshoot, make adjustments, and make mistakes. As new safe(r) spaces practices take shape in our region, we support the evolution and expansion of policies which prioritize care in artist-run culture.

Tiphaine Girault presenting “ Deconstructing Phonocentrism: Sign Language Rights, Accessibility and the Arts ” in American Sign Language. Photo: Will Baker.

Tiphaine Girault presenting “Deconstructing Phonocentrism: Sign Language Rights, Accessibility and the Arts” in American Sign Language. Photo: Will Baker.

Resources on arts and accessibility in Canada:

Tangled Art + Disability, “Accessibility Toolkit: A Guide to Making Art Spaces Accessible.”

Julie Châteauvert et Tiphaine Girault, “Repenser l’art grâce à la langue des signes,” Relations 797 (2018), 29-30.

Michele Decottignies, “Disability Arts and Equity in Canada,” Canadian Theatre Review 165 (April 7, 2016).

Christine Kelly and Michael Orsini, Mobilizing Metaphor: Art, Culture, and Disability Activism in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016).

Carmen Papalia, “An Accessibility Manifesto for the Arts,” Canadian Art, January 2, 2018.  

Stephanie vanKampen, “How Evolve fans took on the festival’s drug problem: volunteer harm reduction teams providing drug testing, counselling, sexual assault prevention,” CBC News, July 27, 2017.