This week kicks off a week of PRIDE celebration events here in Victoria, B.C. and while my heart soars that after a two year hiatus, queer and straight alike will once again have the opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principle that LOVE IS LOVE, together and in-person. My joy is overshadowed by the growth of hate speech and the threats of violence against queer persons and their allies. Throughout this post, click on the links if you don’t know what I’m talking about or you’d like to learn more. Yes, that’s me in the featured picture, taken by Colin Smith Takes Pics during the 2019 PRIDE PARADE.
For the purposes of this post I’ll be using the umbrella term “queer” to mean those who do not generally identify as heteronormative, CIS gender, or straight. I feel this is appropriate because in addition to the 4% of all Canadians identify as queer, based on the results of the Stats Canada 2021 Census, Victoria has the highest proportion of transgender and non-binary residents of any city in Canada. And while recent new abbreviations like 2SLGBTQ+ and LGBQT2SAA+ seek to encompass and provide individual representation for all members of the entire queer community, it can also serve to isolate and divide vulnerable members of the community from support, acceptance, and solidarity. This can be especially true for queer people who are Black, Indigenous, and of other visible minorities who experience the disproportional disadvantage of intersecting racism & queerphobia often manifesting as hate crimes which have been on the rise in Canada.
Many people shy away from using the term queer as being too politically charged or because they have bad memories, like I do, of it being used as a slur, hurled in hate and intended to diminish. However, since I’m addressing you from a very politicalized position as a unionist AND I’ve learned to own my identity as a queer person, it seemed appropriate. For many of you, neither of these two things comes as much of a surprise; for others I may have rocked your world and ruined my chances of ever being elected as president of your union again. Considering the intertwined and tumultuous history of the Labour Movement and Queer Rights, if that’s the price I pay for using this platform you’ve given me to further solidarity, equity, and social justice, then so be it. If by chance you don’t really know what I’m talking about, its long past time you did!
Oh yes, and buckle-up; this is a LONG one. TL;DR in BOLD.
Significant Queer & Labour Rights Relationships in Canada
Unions began to grow in importance in the 1960s with massive strikes that lead to long term change, such as the Federal Public Service Staff Relations Act, 1967, which gave public servants collective bargaining rights. The push for ongoing dialogue between union and employer served as examples to gay and lesbian activists on how to get organized, and created the avenues for their own dialogue in the work environment. As well, they saw the workers as member of the locals as needing to have their rights protected. According to historians Gary Kinsman, the rise of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the formation of the Public Service Alliance of Canada in 1966, began to make it more difficult for RCMP and employers to ask about a person’s sexuality. Kinsman states that:
Because one of the things the new unions challenged was the sort of paramilitary or quasi-military hierarchy that was in the public service, and the various forms of discipline that took place. And that obviously opened up some more space for lesbians and gays who were employed in the public service to begin to organize and, eventually, begin to speak out.Calgary Gay History Project
Why do I say that Labour and Pride might not exist without the other?
- In 1965, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers defies government policies and stages an illegal, country-wide strike. At issue is the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, higher wages and better management. The strike lasts two weeks and is one of the largest “wildcat” strikes in Canadian history. As a result of the labour dispute, the government extends collective bargaining rights to the public service, although some workers, like the RCMP and the military, are excluded.
- The Stonewall Riots happened in the same year as Canada decriminalized homosexual acts. In fact, the Criminal Law Amendment Act first introduced in December 1968 finally receives royal assent on June 27, 1069. Only one day before the Stonewall Riots took place in New York. Just for context, I wasn’t even born, yet and it was still three more years until Camosun College would be formed. Before then you could be arrested or jailed just for being in a homosexual relationship in Canada, and it wouldn’t be fully decriminalized in the USA until 2003.
- On August 28, 1971 the We Demand Rally is staged at Parliament Hill and is generally regarded as Canada’s First Gay Liberation Protest and March. Roughly 100 people from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and the surrounding areas gathered in the pouring rain to present a petition to the government with a list of ten demands for equal rights and protections. Simultaneously, another much smaller group of roughly twenty gay activists demonstrated at Robson Square in Vancouver.
- Did you know that paid maternity leave benefits have only been around since 1971 in Canada? Before that, a new mother had to quit work or return to work quickly if her family depended on her income. And while the federal government, through the unemployment insurance program, introduced limited 15 weeks of paid maternity leave in 1971 at 66% of a mother’s previous salary, it was only a short time later when unions began negotiating longer paid maternity leave with higher levels of benefits for their members that topped up the portion of salary paid by unemployment insurance benefits. And unions also began negotiating guarantees that women could return to the jobs they held before their maternity leave, paternity leave, and leave for parents who adopted children.
- On April 11, 1972, Quebec’s working class stage what is often referred to as the Common Front Strikes, when 200,000 public workers walked off the job in a province-wide general strike to demand an 8% raise to match inflation, a $100-per-week minimum wage, better job security and working conditions, and equal pay for equal work regardless of region, sector or gender. The general strike lasts 10 days. It ends with the imprisonment of the three union presidents and legislation ordering employees back to work. The profound unfairness of sending the three men to jail triggered popular outrage across Quebec’s working class. Over the month of May, work stoppages broke out across the province in public and private workplaces – construction and metal workers, miners, machinists, auto and textile workers, salespeople, print-shop employees, the staff of major news media, teachers and some hospital workers. Pay special attention here, as we are facing 6% inflationary pressures on our wages right now, and for anyone keeping track – I still haven’t been born, yet.
- In addition to being the year I was born, 1973 is a pretty important year for both Labour Rights and Queer Rights in Canada. The first national Pride Week is held in August 1973 simultaneously in several Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Programming included an art festival, a dance, picnic, a screening of a documentary and a rally for gay rights that occurred in all the participating cities. This event represented the shift from the homophile movement into the gay liberation movement, showing the emergence of the concept of gay pride. Then, in October following a lobbying campaign by the Gay Alliance Toward Equality, Toronto City Council adopts a policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in municipal hiring, making the city the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so. Later in this same year, the term homosexuality is removed as a “disorder’ from the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders.
- The 1980s was the decade that pushed the struggle for gay liberation toward the struggle for equality and human rights recognition. However, activists also lost many challenges for equal rights and unions did not always support them. I found it especially significant that one of the unions actively advocating on behalf of their lesbian and gay members during this decade was the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF). Their handbook on salary policy from the 1980s stated, “… any discrimination in salary, promotion, tenure, fringe benefits based on age, sex or sexual orientation, marital status, race, religion, or place of national origin should be opposed”. This policy was an amazing show of solidarity from a union of teachers whose gay and lesbian members were especially vulnerable to homophobic attacks due to their work with young people – like me, I was in secondary school through the 1980s and I wish my teachers had been from the OSSTF.
- On October 16, 1985, the Parliamentary Committee on Equality Rights released a report titled “Equality for All“. The committee writes that it is shocked by the high level of discriminatory treatment of homosexuals in Canada. The report discusses the harassment, violence, physical abuse, psychological oppression and hate propaganda that homosexuals live with on a daily basis. The committee recommends that the Canadian Human Rights Act be changed to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. It would take another ten (10) years before this is achieved.
- It wasn’t until 1996, that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was amended to specifically include sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, and it has had to withstand many, many attempts to claw back these human rights. I highly recommend the HISTORY OF CANADIAN PRIDE by Queer Events for a more detailed walk through the just five years after I had graduated from High School.
- In 2000, Parliament passed Bill C-23 which gives same-sex couple the same social and tax benefits as heterosexuals in common-law relationships. This is the same year that my only biological child was born, that was only 22 years ago.
- In January of 2002, The Northwest Territories became the first jurisdiction in Canada to explicitly add “gender identity” to its human rights legislation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
- The enactment of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005 marked a milestone in sexual orientation equality rights, by allowing same-sex couples to be married anywhere in Canada.
- On June 19, 2017 Bill C-16 was passed by the federal government and received Royal Assent. The bill updated the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression.” The legislation also makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. It also extends hate speech laws to include the two terms, and makes it a hate crime to target someone for being transgender. The bill also amends the sentencing principles section of the code so that a person’s gender identity or expression can be considered an aggravating circumstance by a judge during sentencing. After living in Canada for 7 years, in 2017 I was finally able to obtain Permanent Residency for myself and my child and in doing so, finally being able to access these rights that so many Canadians take for granted.
Need more than a quick overview? My favorite resource for all things Queer is https://www.queerevents.ca/ When you combine that and the Wikipedia article on the timeline of LGBQT history in Canada you’ll see where I cribbed most of the information on LGBQT history in Canada. Labour150 is a brilliant collection of resources, which includes an eBook in PDF form, named “Labour Pride“. Here is a hosted PDF of Labour Pride 2021 that you can download. You can also check out this admittedly US focused timeline of LGBQT Milestones & Fast Facts to see how far behind queer rights are in the USA vs. Canada. (I lived there, and can confirm.) If you want to see how I layered in some of the sentinel Canadian Labour Movement Milestones, check out the Canadian Labour Congress and the Wikipedia article on the timeline of Labour Issues in Canadian history. Here are a few other US Pride & Labour Resources you may want to check out, too. https://www.prideatwork.org/about-us/ & https://blog.dol.gov/2021/06/03/workingout-the-pride-of-the-labor-movement.
And finally, if you want just want to experience a feel good classic story rooted in absolute facts and fabulousness, watch the movie PRIDE (2014), which is the true story of the 1984-85 UK Miners’ Strike and the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign of support.
Copied and pasted from the Wikipedia article: “The alliances which the campaign forged between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and British labour groups proved to be an important turning point in the progression of LGBT matters in the United Kingdom. Miners’ labour groups began to support, endorse and participate in various gay pride events throughout the UK, including leading London’s Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in 1985. At the 1985 Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, a resolution committing the party to the support of LGBT rights passed, due to block voting support from the National Union of Mineworkers. The miners’ groups were also among the most outspoken allies of the LGBT community in the 1988 campaign against Section 28, “the prohibition against the promotion of homosexuality”.
When you consider marching in the Pride Parade or participating in the coming week’s festivities, no matter if you are out, in the closet, or an ally; know that you do so in relative safety and comfort because of all those who stood in solidarity before you. Remember that the fight for these rights is far from over, as recent events like the cancellation of the monthly Caffe Fantastico drag shows after an anonymous caller threatens gun violence against all participants and that we must all continue to stand up against such hatred and bigotry.
Know too, that I’ll be there, loud, proud, out and unapologetically queer. I hope you’ll join me. There are a limited number of spaces on the CCSS float, typically reserved for those who would not be able to physically march the entire parade route. But for the rest of us, and I’m calling on all of you – my comrades; we can march together and show our solidarity for our queer students, colleagues, and fellow human beings. Will you answer the call?