Fresh and the Furious: GTA Drift

What’s in a Name?: Rebranded Uhaul Brawl Proudly Kicks off Toronto Pride

Tight walls from the Plaid Mafia at the 2015 Uhaul Brawl. (Photography by Neil Gunner)

Tight walls from the Plaid Mafia at the 2015 Uhaul Brawl. (Photography by Neil Gunner)

At the end of the week of Pride Toronto 2015, on the eve of the biggest annual Pride weekend in North America, the United States of America kind of stole the show. When that country’s Supreme Court rendered the decision to allow same-sex marriage across the board, the world, including those already well caught up in the midst of the rainbow wave in Toronto, rejoiced. It was a monumental moment in the ongoing mainstream shift in Western attitudes toward the LGBTQ2 community and will undoubtedly be looked back upon as a decisive moment in our march toward universal human rights. But, of course, we’re not quite there yet. On the morning of Friday, June 26, 2015, as news of the Supreme Court’s decision dominated headlines, roller derby fans in Toronto were only slowly awaking and shaking off the previous night’s festivities. It had been a long Thursday for those who’d attended the Uhaul Brawl, the city’s annual all-queer all-star roller derby event, which, for the third year in a row was co-organized between Toronto Roller Derby and the GTA Rollergirls. It’s been an important event in the history and development of the sport in this city, and arguably represents contemporary roller derby in its purest form: fun, athletic, and with a clear progressive agenda.While this was the seventh year for the event (first held in 2009 at the George Bell Arena), this was the first year since letting go of the event’s original moniker, the Clam Slam.

The Blundstone Brigade and The Glitterrazzi kicked off the night with an exciting game that went down to the final jam.

The Blundstone Brigade and The Glitterrazzi kicked off the night with an exciting game that went down to the final jam.

Since re-emerging in Austin in the early part of the 21st Century, women’s flat track roller derby has occupied a fascinating space in the North American sports community. Initially the flat track movement was a riot-grrrl inspired, third-wave feminist spectacle that made a mockery of sports culture, all the while flaunting a certain form of hyper-femininity that in equal parts drew people in and kept them out. The game and the places where it was played were celebrated as safe, celebratory spaces for women. The Clam Slam rose out of this ideology: celebratory, hyper-feminine, and even as the competitive level of the sport arose around it (and thus within the event as well), those core values remained. However, the justifiably giddy response around the Supreme Court’s decision hid many problematic issues. For one, it highlighted how slow progress can be in the planet’s richest democracy (Canada and many other Western nations had legalized same-sex marriage for at least a decade), and it also masked the plight of those in the trans community, for whom progress and acceptance have been much harder to come by. While homophobia is still undeniably rampant in North America (primarily driven by the religious right), the lives of those in the LGB community have never been more protected as they are now. The laws of the land have indeed shifted, and while the members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities still face discrimination, they now have institutional protection and a guarantee of equal rights across the board (even if, sometimes, they still have to fight for them). The same cannot yet be said for the members in the trans community. Although it has been three years since Ontario passed Toby’s Act into law, trans people, whether it be through a simple lack of access to washrooms or being placed in detention with those of the opposite gender (just to name two examples), still face the kind of surface—and institutional—discrimination that members of the LGB community have been mostly able to find protection from. It was out of this murky climate that the movement to change the name of Toronto’s annual Pride-affiliated roller derby game arose. “We knew that [the name] was something that we had to address because we know that it’s transmisogynist and we know that there are problems with that in roller derby as well as in other queer spaces,” explains Uhaul Brawl co-organizer, Vag Lightning (skating at Uhaul Brawl as the Notorious V.A.G.).

There were twelve different leagues represented over the two games at Uhaul Brawl.

There were twelve different leagues represented over the two games at Uhaul Brawl.

The initial idea was to change the name moving forward and to find something that didn’t focus on women’s genitals. But as the event neared, it became more and more obvious that the time for change was now: “We were going to do it for next year but we got called out—rightfully so,” Vag admits, adding that “there are people who didn’t sign up this year because of it.” Specifically, Vag cites the criticism of new D-VAS skater The Lavender Menace as catalyst for the change, as it was she who first publicly articulated her feelings of exclusion, feelings that were quickly echoed across social media.

As the realization that people were being hurt and excluded from the event because of the name became more and more obvious (which is counter to the very essence of the event), change was instituted immediately. While the name and attitude surrounding the event had left some on the outside looking in, the event itself had never had a policy of exclusion, and trans women have been skating in the games since the inaugural Clam Slam in 2009. However, Vag acknowledges that while trans women have skated in the event, none had ever been involved in the planning, which is common: “that is something the event has suffered from as well as other events for queer women. Maybe if more trans women had been involved in an organizing position, these changes would have been made sooner. We have to talk about why trans women aren’t involved in the planning.” But, she’s quick to point out, “It shouldn’t be up to trans women to tell other queer women that what we’re doing is problematic.” The birth of the Uhaul Brawl seems to be part of a larger change in the roller derby community, built around a redefinition of inclusion. The reasoning behind the change, explains Vag, was that “The name itself perpetuates the assumption of what a woman is in queer womanhood.”

This problematic assumption, when you sit down and think about it, is rampant in the roller derby community (“Beaver Fever” comes to mind), a vestige of its riot grrrl roots. “We like to pat ourselves on the back and talk about how progressive we are,” points out Vag, citing the recent Vagine Regime-focused film In the Turn as being a surprisingly disappointing example of the community making assumptions about what a woman is in queer womanhood. “We want to push for a bigger conversation,” Vag says, “as well as push for more change at the WFTDA level, including with the gender policy,” which, she, and others, have pointed out, is problematic.

Many skaters skated under different names, including Montreal's La Grande Noirceur, who skated as Le Petite Mort.

Many skaters skated under different names, including Montreal’s La Grande Noirceur, who skated as Le Petite Mort.

What the name change has already accomplished is opening up the discussion to the community, and while there was some quiet resistance to the change, it was mostly accepted with open arms, celebrated even. And when the whistle blew, it didn’t change what happened on the track: fast, fun, fantastic roller derby. For the record, The Blundstone Brigade won the opening game 156-154 after a furious last-jam comeback against the The Gliterrazzi, while Team Uhaul defeated The Plaid Mafia 187-133. While the US Supreme Court’s decision was undeniably monumental, instead of seeing it as an end point in a battle, it should be seen as a beginning point of a push for the rights of those who are still excluded. While changing the name of one all-star roller derby event in Toronto seems a small gesture, it is the accumulation of those small gestures that will inspire change. “Hopefully doing stuff like this will ripple out to other leagues and we can all start doing a little better because we owe it to ourselves,” Vag concludes. “We owe it to our community, and we owe it to trans women.”

**The 2015 Uhaul Brawl was live streamed on layer9.ca. You can watch the archives here.**

Montreal Steps on the Gas at Fresh and Furious: GTA DRIFT (Part 2: The Commentary)

Miracle Whips was physically dominant jamming for the Smash Squad. (Photo by Greg Russell)

If you want to examine the health of flat track roller derby in Canada, you’d do no better than to look at the events from this past weekend. While some of the best young skaters in Ontario, Montreal and Buffalo were dueling on the GTA Rollergirls’ tracks in Toronto, the best of the Atlantic provinces (with guests from Quebec City and Maine Roller Derby as well) were converging on Moncton for Muddy River’s second annual Atlantic Jamboree. Roller Derby Quebec’s Duchesses, who should be no strangers to eastern Canadian derby fans after two appearances in the Beast of the East, finally offered a challenge to Muddy River’s dominance on the east coast, going 3-1 including splitting games with Muddy River’s Reines of Terror (who also finished at 3-1). Halifax and Red Rock N Roller Derby from Charlottetown, PEI, also had strong showings, and overall provided an excellent display of the rapid growth of derby on the coast. At the highest level in the Atlantic Provinces, teams are employing much more complex strategies at a much earlier stage. Something seen all over the Fresh and the Furious tournament in Toronto.

Zom-Boney (in the pack) and Wackedher (double threat) were key members of the D-VAS third place finish. (Photo by Neil Gunner)

Since 2009, when flat track roller derby finally “found itself,” the major differentiation between new leagues and teams and the established ones was the use of complex strategies, particularly those dealing with pack definition and pace. At last year’s 2Fresh 2Furious, the winners, the Gold Miner’s Daughters, were essentially the best skaters in the tournament (or had the best skaters on their roster) and were able to “hit and run” their way through the competition to win the tournament. In 2012, at the Fresh and the Furious: GTA Drift, strategy would trump speed, agility would overcome power: evidence that there has been a definite shift in preparation for flat track teams.

Tournament co founder My-call Bublè cites that as the biggest change in this tournament since its inception as the Virgin Suicides Brawl in 2008 and even since last year’s 2Fresh 2Furious. “People are training with strategy now, instead of (learning to skate and) figuring it out later,” he said in an interview between games late in the tournament.  “Most of the teams this year would beat most of the teams from last year,” he said confidently. “The level of derby has been brought up a lot from last year.”

Royal City pivot Forca attempts to hold back Montreal jammer Saucisse. Both were integral to their teams in the tournament. (Photo by Greg Russell).

Royal City’s Top Herloins’ coach Professor Wrex echoed My-call Bublè’s sentiments exactly. “The top four teams this year would definitely beat the top four teams from last year. Their skating ability is on par but their teamwork is better and their strategic work within the game is heightened.” And it was obvious that something on the track had taken a dramatic turn. While at last year’s tournament skaters seemed like they were just getting their skating legs, this year they seemed like they were getting their derby legs.

Border City captain Bloody White was a force in the pack. (Photo by Neil Gunner)

Like the annual Jamboree in Moncton, this tournament has quickly become an important step in the growth of the sport in this part of the country.  “It brings something to derby that derby needs,” said My-Call Bublè, noting that new leagues like Lindsay and Woodstock get to play new skaters from established leagues like Montreal. “It’s an opportunity that you just don’t get (anywhere else).”

While there may be a disparity in the experience between the leagues, all of the teams are comprised of new, “fresh” skaters many of whom are playing their first games ever. So despite the fact that more established leagues like Montreal, Royal City and ToRD made it to the final four, everyone involved is aware that anything can happen. “I just wanted our team to have a good time and learn from some of the leagues coming to this tournament,” said Professor Wrex.  “I didn’t know what to expect because you never know where the next best skater is going to be coming out of, (but) I’m glad to see we still have good fresh meat and good training in our league, (and) I’m super happy with everything they’ve done.”

GTA jammer Paper Jam anchored the offense for the Derby Debutantes. (Photo by Greg Russell).

His opposing coach in the championship game, The Rev, seconded that. “Our expectations were low. We just wanted to have fun. This was the first time that a lot of the girls have had a chance to go out and skate against other people who aren’t in the league. It’s an opportunity to go out and test the waters.” Also the coach of Montreal’s WFTDA team, the New Skids on the Block, The Rev has a vested interest in the growth of the newest skaters in the league, and he seemed more than pleased with the way things turned out: “I’d say the future of Montreal roller derby has a good base in this Smash Squad.”

And with tournaments like the Fresh and Furious and the Atlantic Jamboree popping up, eastern Canadian Roller Derby seems to have a good base as well.

**For all the results and game commentary, see Part 1

**For results from the Atlantic Jamboree, visit Canuck Derby TV.