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A person holds a sign during a pride rally in Saskatoon, Sask., on Thursday, June 1, 2023.Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press

Most people in Canada know Pride chiefly for its parades, rainbow flags, and parties, but the colourful festivities comingle with a deeper purpose -- to empower and uplift people at the margins, helping them push for change. It’s about joy but it’s also about protecting LGBTQ+ rights.

“It’s not just a party – it’s actually a protest,” said Chris Kennedy, the communications director for Fierté Canada Pride, the national assocation for Pride organizations. “It’s about recognizing the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and our ongoing fight for equality, recognition, acceptance, and love.”

The history of Pride

In Canada, homosexuality between two men was criminalized until 1969, meaning “gay people of older generations have living memory of very aggressive backlash and discrimination,” notes Tristen Durocher, co-chair of Saskatoon Pride. (Lesbians were omitted from the law.)

Pride parades in Canada didn’t start until 1978, a delayed response to New York City’s Stonewall Riots. In June of 1969, the NYPD tried to raid the Stonewall Inn, a racially mixed bar for people from all across the gender and sexuality spectrum. A spontaneous protest to police brutality erupted that lasted days, galvanizing a wider North American movement for Gay Rights. The June 28 anniversary a year later marked the first Pride marches in U.S. history.

Now, with queerness increasingly mainstream -- TV shows like Modern Family, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Queer Eye, and even a Marvel move, Loki, centre LGBTQ+ protagonists -- the movement continues to fight for the rights of those considered marginalized. Today, many Pride activists are intentionally re-centring racialized queer and trans people.

At Fierté Montreal, 60 percent of artists booked are Black, Indigenous, or other people of colour, said Simon Gamache, executive director of the event. This is important because when racialized folks recognize themselves on stage they often realize “I can be like that person – I can feel comfortable in public, I can feel safe.”

Kootenay Pride in Nelson, B.C. is taking steps for all members to participate in training and consultation with Sinixt people, the Indigenous Nation located in the Kootenays and the surrounding area, said Kelsey Rodier, one of the lead organizers.

Pride events are also moving toward greater accessibility for people with disabilities. Capital Pride, Fierté Montreal and Vancouver Pride all made changes this year to serve a greater breadth of people.

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Saskatoon Pride Parade, 2015.Tourism Saskatoon / CONCEPTS Photography

Pride in rural communities

While big events like Fierté Montreal and Pride Toronto get most of the attention, the work of small Prides is probably even more important, Mr. Gamache said. “There are many many tiny Pride organizations that are not tiny in their scope – that do huge things for their communities and we should really pay attention.”

Julie Nobert DeMarchi, president of Fierté Canada Pride and founder of Timmins Pride, noted that in most small northern communities, LGBTQ+ resources are nonexistent. “That’s the thing about remote rural Pride, there are no other services,” she said, and Pride events are sometimes “the only glimmer of hope.”

Mr. Durocher grew up in Northern Saskatchewan, without Pride celebrations or LGBTQ+ visibility in public places. In small towns, people celebrate Pride however they can, he said – sometimes with just five or six people gathering for a march. Ms. Nobert DeMarchi said sometimes it’s just “a couple people hanging out at a coffee table in someone’s house, because that’s the only place that is safe for them to be who they are.”

Corporate Pride?

For some Pride participants and organizers, “rainbow capitalism” is a concern -- does a given business actively support LGBTQ+ rights, they wonder, or is it flying the flag mostly to court the queer dollar? When businesses want to support Pride they should provide their platforms “as a space for our voices,” Mr. Kennedy said.

In Ottawa, Capital Pride ensures their corporate partners are committed to supporting LGBTQ+ communities, and making changes like adopting policies and creating employee resource groups, Mr. Whitfield said.

When Fierté Montreal organizers talk to potential sponsors, they start with an evaluation to determine whether they are working to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. If they aren’t, and they are not willing to put resources behind doing so, Fierté turns down the sponsorship, Mr. Gamache said.

But for some people, including Mr. Durocher, any representation is appreciated. He doesn’t want to critique the corporatization of Pride because LGBTQ+ activists “fought to have that inclusion and that representation noticed and honoured.”

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Olympians Patrick Biggs and Katie Weatherston having fun at the annual Capital Pride Parade in Ottawa in 2013.

Fighting against increased hate

A Statistics Canada report on hate crimes notes that “in 2021 there was a 64-per-cent rise in crimes against members of the LGBTQ community,” according to a Globe story from March 2023.

Ms. Johnstone said this increased hate includes personal attacks on herself, and she is “worried for queer and trans people all across the country,” particularly those with multiple marginalizations.

Mr. Whitfield is alarmed by “the huge attack on safe spaces for trans students in schools,” but assures “we are going to continue to push for trans people to have the right to be in their schools and be celebrated and affirmed.”

Pride celebrations act as a reminder to LGBTQ+ people that “they are wanted, they are loved, they are welcomed, they are embraced in their community,” he said.

For the first time, Timmins Pride is “planning around safety and security” this year, and they’ve been warned not to put the word family and drag in the same space, as doing so is likely to “attract the bigots to come up to Timmins.”

Fierté Pride Canada have responded to the increase in attacks by establishing an anti-hate working group and are calling on the government of Canada to “act against this rise in hate,” Mr. Kennedy said.

If protestors do show up, Ms. Norbert DeMarchi has a plan – to give them water bottles, with Pride logos. “Shower them in love and kindness,” she said, and “maybe they will learn something.”

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