October 14-15, 2017, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival hosted a contingent of Canadian artists and writers at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, UK. Following reasonable criticism about the racial diversity of the festival’s guest list, LICAF’s initial Twitter response was unacceptably insensitive and unprofessional. Over the following week, events unfolded that ultimately led to severe harassment directed towards British comics critic and publisher Zainab Akhtar, as well as to many of the cartoonists pulling out of LICAF.
After conversations with TCAF staff and volunteers, as well as with cartoonists and other stakeholders in the TCAF community, we agree it is important to comment on this situation and more generally on our partnership with LICAF.
TCAF has worked closely with LICAF since its inception in 2013. Initially acting as festival consultants our relationship has grown into a cultural exchange program, with us sending Canadian cartoonists to LICAF and welcoming UK cartoonists to TCAF. With such closeness, we understand how LICAF’s self-admittedly poor handling of the criticism reflects on TCAF, as well as how TCAF’s silence could be read as a blanket approval of LICAF’s actions and an unwillingness to engage with these issues head-on.
To be clear, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival fully condemns the racist harassment and threats directed towards Zainab Akhtar, as well as the vitriol directed towards creators who chose to exhibit or not exhibit at LICAF 2017.
We also agree with LICAF that their initial Twitter response and communications were inappropriate, and that they have caused stress and heartache to Zainab and others.
We take very seriously our mission to promote Canadian cartoonists around the world. When partnering with festivals abroad, our goal is to share our values and to support an inclusive and thriving comics community. As much as possible, we take responsibility for the experiences of the cartoonists we bring to these exchanges. Both in terms of artistic growth and career development, we try to provide Canadian artists with excellent international opportunities. On this trip we learned in a very real way that we must take more steps to ensure that our partners share and live our organizational values.
This statement does not come from a place of moral superiority above LICAF or the criticism raised around the inclusiveness of race and religion at comics festivals. TCAF aims to create a festival that represents the experiences and identities of everyone who attends, but we still have plenty of work to do. Like LICAF, we are having our own internal discussions about how we can create a better TCAF through a more equitable and anti-oppressive lens. This is work we are still doing, and we look forward to proving our commitment with action. If you would like to offer feedback to TCAF, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
While TCAF had not planned to participate in a cultural exchange with LICAF in 2018, we welcome festival administrators or affiliated cartoonists who want to attend TCAF to continue the work of developing more inclusive festivals. It is only together that we are able to make widespread changes and impacts across the comics industry. We are choosing to be optimistic about LICAF’s statements in regards to making their festival more equitable for marginalized creators, and we will be keeping their follow-through in mind as we evaluate the potential to partner again in 2019.
This incident highlights the need for comics festivals around the world, TCAF very much among them, to work harder and with urgency, both to build comics communities that value criticism, and to implement real change that fosters inclusion and diversity.
Thank you for reading, thank you for your patience, and thank you to our community for continually holding us to task and holding us to a high standard.
–TCAF Executive Staff and Volunteers (firstname.lastname@example.org)