When the organizers of Fort Frances’s Borderland Pride learned of the extended closure of the Canada-U.S. border and other pandemic-related measures, they decided to take their Pride Month celebrations — which, in the past, have included one of the world’s only cross-border Pride parades — online and, in some cases, onto people’s lawns. “I think it's a really important, particularly for LGBT young people, to see that there’s this outpouring of symbols that [show] an openness to what their identity is — or what they think their identity might be,” says Douglas Judson, co-chair of Borderland Pride.
So, in addition to having drag performers perform readings on Zoom and hosting virtual town halls, Judson launched the Pride Lives Here lawn-sign campaign on May 21, and Borderland urged northwestern Ontario municipalities to pass resolutions officially recognizing June as Pride Month. “I worry that, by not having Pride, are you compounding the situation of someone who is struggling to reconcile identity, who is in the closet, or who is dealing with an unsupportive environment where they live or with the people who provide care to them?” says Judson. However, at least one town has rejected the push to declare June a local Pride Month, and advocates say the decision exposes entrenched homophobia and transphobia in northwestern Ontario and underscores the importance of Pride festivals.
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On May 21, Emo’s town council defeated a proposed Pride Month resolution that would have had local leadership commit to flying a rainbow flag at municipal headquarters. Emo mayor Harold McQuaker, who cast the deciding vote, said that he represented the majority of Emo’s 1,400 residents, referred to the town as a Christian community, and commented that there was no straight-pride flag for the “other side” to fly. On May 26, Borderland Pride submitted a 1,742-signature online petition and asked council to reverse the decision; the call was dismissed. “I’m there for all our citizens – for all people – and my feelings are still the same,” said McQuaker at the meeting. “My feelings won’t change. In a democracy, the majority rules. And if they were being discriminated against, it would be different. But there’s no discrimination here – none whatsoever.”
Mary-Ann Flatt and Stephanie Diebolt, co-chairs of the Sioux Lookout Gay-Straight Alliance — northwestern Ontario’s oldest annual Pride celebration, which began in 2011, seven years before Borderland became a reality — say the Emo vote appalled them. “This is exactly why there is a need for Pride festivals, parades and gatherings: a true celebration, to come together, to understand each other, to hear each other, share with each other, support each other,” they told TVO.org via email. Flatt and Diebolt consider the result of the council vote “a blatant act of discrimination against the 2SLGBTQ+ community.”
As Emo council doubled down on its decision, the Pride Lives Here campaign ramped up. Borderland signs and billboards started going up in Thunder Bay on May 28. The campaign ran out of signs two days later, after having distributed more than 400 throughout the region’s largest urban centre. Demand in Fort Frances has also outstripped supply: 250 signs have gone out, and a second print run is underway. Pride groups are mobilizing to distribute signs in Dryden, Kenora, Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, and the border towns of Minnesota that have taken part in past cross-border celebrations. And, June 1, the first day of Pride months around the world, Emo municipal workers came to work to find bristol-board signs with pro-LGBTQ messages covering town hall. Judson posted to Twitter: “I have no idea who did this, but I salute them.”
Emo United Church, the congregation in which Judson grew up, had distributed 35 signs as of the morning of May 29. Frances Flook has been the minister there for 22 years, but, in June, will be delivering, via Vimeo, the district’s annual Pride service for the first time. “There’s not one Christian perspective. Some of us feel called by our Christian faith to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community,” says Flook, who also leads congregations in Devlin and Rainy River. “I want to let the LGBTQ community know that God loves them and that they’re the beloved children of God. We’re all sinners, but our sexuality and our orientation is not, in and of itself.”
Pride marches have been held in Ontario for decades, but they have started happening in northwestern Ontario only in the past decade, and many towns and First Nations still don’t hold formal events. Thunder Bay’s first march was held in 2013, Kenora’s in 2015, and Dryden’s and Red Lake’s in 2017.
Shakir Rahim, Pride Toronto’s co-chair, says he’s aware that LGBTQ organizations in northwestern Ontario face challenges. Pride Toronto solicited supporters to sign Borderland’s petition and has offered to support the region’s organizations. “We really see ourselves as allies in this battle, and I definitely think it’s a new chapter or part of the new landscape of what Prides are facing,” Rahim says. “It’s about building bridges and building understanding.”
Thunder Pride chair Jason Veltri says that, even as Thunder Bay is preparing to host the national Fierté Canada Pride conference in early 2021, a lack of acceptance remains. A drag performer was accosted in public last year, and online threats followed city council’s 2019 decision to pay for a third of a $28,000 rainbow-painted crosswalk. “You look at what happened in Emo — the fact is there’s still homophobic and transphobic behavior that still runs rampant in our communities,” says Veltri. “As activists, it’s our responsibility to fight back and provide these welcoming and inclusive communities you can move to, set up, and have a family in.” Thunder Bay will be holding nine days of online events beginning June 5.
Sylvie Martin manages Ontario’s newest Pride organization, in Hearst. Last summer, she led the first march of 25 people through the northeastern town of 5,000. She’s encouraging allies to celebrate this year by decorating their homes to show support for Pride. “I feel like it’s so new that, if we don’t have it this year, people are going to forget about it and think it’s not important — but it is,” she says. “People who are part of LGBTQ, they want to know they still matter. We’ll always be there. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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