Freaks, geeks, and other outlaws

Alberta’s liquor-licence handbook limits the “bizarre, grotesque or offensive”

Calgary clothing designer Danika “Demonika” Challand knows fashion. And if anything is out of fashion in 2011, it’s censorship. In March, Challand, the impresario behind the Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors burlesque cabaret show, had to work around good-taste guidelines enforced by the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission.

Inspectors who read about the event in a newspaper visited an adults-only Edmonton venue, the Starlite Room, which was preparing to host Challand’s celebration of carnival acts, fetish wear, and horror movies. After negotiation, and some reining-in of near-nudity, the AGLC gave its imprimatur and the show went on. It doesn’t always. In 2008, freak-show performing duo the Great Orbax and Sweet Pepper Klopek trekked to Grande Prairie, Alta., only to find a “cancelled” sign on the venue door as a result of a last-minute inspector visit. “We stayed and watched something the commission has no problem with—ultimate fighting,” says Orbax, who is a University of Guelph physics instructor when he’s not having nails driven into him or cinder blocks smashed on him. The fights were fun; losing weeks of work and thousands of dollars wasn’t.

Alberta appears to be alone among provinces in having liquor inspectors make value judgments on entertainment, as opposed to pure health and safety policing. Its liquor-licence handbook says “any entertainment or games that may be considered bizarre, grotesque or offensive” must have advance approval. The rule is an AGLC regulation, not part of the Liquor Act. “The board didn’t sit and create this policy on a whim,” insists commission spokesman Christine Wronkow. “It was adopted [in 1996] based on public feedback and stakeholder consultation.” With presumably no more than a glance at the Charter of Rights.

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