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People take part in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto on Sunday, July 3, 2011.

Ian Willms/Ian Willms/CP

An estimated one million people - from union reps to drag queens - marched Sunday under sun-drenched skies in a riot of colours and sounds in the annual Pride Parade in Toronto.

But it was the absence of one man - Mayor Rob Ford - that captured the attention of many and created the most controversy.

"I think the mayor is allowed to do what he wants to do," said city councillor Michael Thompson, a supporter of the mayor. "He's been a very busy man."

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But liberal council member Kristyn Wong-Tam was critical of his choice.

"Considering there are 10 days of events, the mayor could have shown up to at least one. That sent a message to these organizations that perhaps this community is not important to him," she said.

This is the first time the city's mayor has missed Pride since Barbara Hall started the tradition during her term in office.

Mayor Ford, who was elected late last year, stirred controversy by saying he planned to honour a long-standing family tradition and spend the July 1 long weekend at his family cottage, rather than at the Pride parade or events. There had been hints he might attend some other event of the 10-day festival but he never appeared at any of them.

Some participants took the mayor's decision to go to the cottage as a call to arms.

"I marched in Pride this year with a little bit more pride than I might have in the past because I felt we had to send a message to Team Rob Ford and his supporters that we're still here and we're not going away," said one man who marched with the AIDS Committee of Toronto.

The only sign of Mr. Ford was when a yellow Hummer drove by with two brightly dressed drag queens sitting on the roof. The driver wore a Rob Ford mask and waved to crowds as he rolled by.

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People on the sidewalks cheered, laughed and danced along the jam-packed route as participants of all stripes marched along the sun-drenched route that ran west along Bloor Street from Church Street, then south down Yonge Street.

The sounds of whistles, screams and staccato dance music filtered through the throngs. Rainbow colours - the symbol of Pride - dominated flags, umbrellas, logos, necklaces, wigs, hats and balloons.

Leanne Iskander is a member of a group of students fighting to have gay-straight alliance groups allowed in the Catholic school system. She and a group of students at her school got almost 50 students to show up and march in the parade in support of their efforts. They marched close to the front near the TDSB float, which was draped in a rainbow flag and had representatives from the school board bouncing to pounding dance music and waving flags. A school bus of kids followed close behind the TDSB float spraying the crowds with water guns through the window slits.

"Being here is like a celebration for everything we've accomplished over the years, starting from the bathhouse raids [30 years ago]until now" when gay marriage is legal in six American states, including New York's recent decision to permit it, said Steven Ly, a 15-year-old marching with the Catholic students group.

"I think if people want to express they're gay there's nothing wrong with it. It's a human right," said Max Butler, another teen marching with the Catholic students.

Ms. Wong-Tam is less optimistic.

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"I can't help but feel in my gut that we are going backwards in terms of social equality," she said.

With files from Adrian Morrow

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