Q&A with 2020 Story Contributors Ron Byers & Rob Browatzke

Hello ECAMPers!

As the ECAMP Curator, the best part of my job is working with the Story Contributors. I love getting to know new people, sharing in their research excitement (and struggles,) and helping people tell the stories that are important to them. Two ECAMP writers that have been a joy to work with & learn from this year are Ron Byers and Rob Browatzke.

Ron is a community leader and storyteller. Decades of work in Edmonton’s non-profit sector have given him an extensive resume of service as well as a unique viewpoint on our city and its history. His involvement with groups such as the ISCWR, Pride Centre, and Edmonton Men’s Health Collective leads him to approache topics such as Edmonton’s gay history with insight and passion.

Rob is an Edmonton club owner and author. He has been professionally involved in a Edmonton’s gay nightlife for over two decades. Most of his novels are set in a fictitious gay nightlife world so this is a topic for which he is truly passionate.

Ron & Rob are collaborating on two ECAMP projects, both exploring aspects of Edmonton’s Queer history. Their five-part story on the History of Gay Bars in Edmonton will be released later this month, and their exploration of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose will be published later this year.

Many thanks to Ron & Rob for participating in this interview, and for sharing their stories of becoming ECAMP Story Contributors.

CH: How did you learn about the Edmonton City as Museum Project?

Rob: I heard about the project from my friend Ron, and then explored some of the previous stories on the site

Ron: When the Curator of ECAMP posted in the Historic Edmonton Facebook Group looking for contributors for the Spring 2020 release she identified the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose as one group she hoped to hear from. The ISCWR was and still is the longest running LGBTQ organization in Alberta. A friend of mine, Lorne Stelmach, was a member of the group and tag me in a reply to her post. I then communicated with Christina a number of times before finally submitting my first Expression of Interest. I was already somewhat familiar with the ECAMP website as City Councillor Michael Phair had written a story for Flashback and the Gay Drag Races. When I went to read the story after hearing about it several years ago I was surprised to see me in the center of the main story image. Having been the originating Host/MC for the event it was nice to see that I had secured a place in history.

CH: What inspired you to submit an Expression of Interest/ application to be a Story Contributor?

Ron: Since there was a specific request for the ISCWR, as a founding member, I am one of the few remaining people alive that can tell the story as it happened. I also still maintain connections with the 4 people of the original group of 10-12 people that are still alive. My relationship with the organization has covered most of the last 45 years though I did pull back a bit about 12 years ago. I approached a friend, Rob Browatzke, to consider writing the later years as one part and I would cover the first 25 years. 

Additionally, for several years a number of older LGBTQ friends have commented that our community has not documented our history to any degree. I saw an opportunity to spearhead an effort to capture some of our history before it gets lost forever. So in addition to my EOI including the ISCWR, I also proposed a couple other LGBTQ stories including the History of Gay Bars in Edmonton. As an extremely active member of the community I felt I had gotten drunk in just about every one that existed and those qualifications alone should enable me to write this important historical story.

CH: What has being an ECAMP Story Contributor meant to you?

Rob: It’s been a great experience to share with Ron, and I look forward to our next project. The older I get, the more I think about my legacy. Being part of projects like this is part of that legacy.

Ron: Having the idea to capture the local history of one segment of our community in Edmonton has been languishing in my brain for many years. By being given the chance to tell part of two great stories of the LGBTQ community it propelled the idea into action. I am very proud now to know that others will be able to read these pieces and learn from them. In particular the GSA’s in Alberta have almost no resources to offer their participants on the events and people that shaped today’s acceptance of queer folk. Hopefully stories such as the ones being told will shape their experiences as they learn whom they are as people. And maybe one day, in a far more accepting political climate in Alberta, we might one day see Queer history added to the curriculum.

CH: Share a story from your research process, such as a moment of celebration, a surprise, a change of direction in your research, how COVID impacted your research, or maybe a question that had to go unanswered.

Rob: The biggest challenges had less to do with COVID and more to do with conflicting memories.  But oh! Exploring those memories was rewarding, whether that was with mentors and leaders or through sites like the Archives. 

Ron: I had been browsing the City of Edmonton Archives and one entry in the Gay And Lesbian Archives Fonds struck me as odd. It noted that back in 1971 a gay bar existed that I was not aware of. So on a research visit to the Archives I reviewed the file and was surprised to find documentation that this unknown place had actually made the attempt to open… and also its connection to Chez Pierre’s.

The story on the History of Gay Bars in Edmonton took a very unexpected turn when additional words were allotted to tell the story by Christina Hardie, the Curator for ECAMP. What was originally just going to be a listing while minimal comments suddenly became an opportunity to actually tell the story that I wanted to tell. That doesn’t mean the whole story was told, in fact there are so many stories that can now be told for each of the many entries that were documented.

Why is it important to share stories about Edmonton’s Queer history?

Rob: Our history is important and it’s disappearing. The impact of AIDS and the passage of time has caused the Queer community to lose so many people and their stories. If we don’t capture what we can when we can, it will be gone forever. I love learning about those that came before me and how what they’ve done has shaped my experiences of being in gay nightlife professionally for over two decades. 

Ron: History tells us how we got to today. What our ancestors and the trailblazers of the past endured to give us the lifestyle we enjoy today. In Edmonton, our history has been documented in so many ways, with ECAMP being one way of getting some of our history online for people to read and learn from. Nothing like this has ever been done in any meaningful way. Without having a Queer history, how do our youth learn who we are as a community? How we were then and now will shape where we will be down the road. The stories on ECAMP will join a growing trend in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto to start documenting history from the perspective of the LGBTQ folks who lived it… before they are gone and can no longer tell their stories.

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share my stories. The foundation that most of my adult life was built on was the principle “to learn as much as I can and share with others”. I am proud that I can still abide by this single principle as I near the end of my life.

CH: Many thanks, Ron & Rob, for undertaking this work for your community, sharing your stories as an ECAMP Story Contributor, and for your upcoming contributions to the ECAMP story collection.

Are you interested in the history of this place? Do you enjoy writing, researching, or storytelling? Is there a story from our city’s past or your past in the city that you want to share? Then consider submitting your story ideas to the Edmonton City as Museum Project. 

For more information on how to contribute, download the 2021 Story Contributor information package.

Take care!

– Christina Hardie, Curator of the Edmonton City as Museum Project.