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Pride in Canada


As millions of people come together this month in Pride parades and celebrations in support of LGBTQI+, we should bear in mind that, as far we have progressed as a society in recognizing the rights of LGBTQI+, discrimination and hate-motivated violence against this community still exists. In some 77 countries, discriminatory laws criminalize private, consensual same-sex relationships.

The battle to achieve same-sex rights has been hard-fought. Older community members can remember when an individual could lose their job for being openly gay, when individuals were openly harassed by the police for their sexual orientation, and being denied basic services was commonplace. It's worthwhile, therefore, to take note of the significant breakthroughs in the rights and freedoms of this resilient community over the years. In Canada, actual progress for the LGBTQI+ community began in 1969, when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts.

In 1981, 150 Toronto city police officers stormed a series of bathhouses downtown. The size and scope of the “Operation Soap” raids were unprecedented (over 150 police made 286 arrests). The raids drew the condemnation of groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as a clear case of discrimination. Many consider them the Canadian equivalent of New York’s 1969 “Stonewall” protests. Some also say the roots of today’s large Pride celebrations lie in the turmoil and protests the night after the raids. However, community organizing and politicization had been growing throughout the 1970s.

The 1990s saw the breakdown of many societal barriers and strides toward mainstream social acceptance with the emergence and election of several openly gay and lesbian politicians, from Glenn Murray, the first openly gay mayor (Winnipeg), to Libby Davies, the country's first openly lesbian M.P.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in Egan v. Canada, 2 S.C.R. 513, that Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the "right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination," included sexual orientation as a prohibited basis of discrimination. The ruling involved an appeal of the decision by Health and Welfare Canada to deny Egan's partner Jack Nesbit a spousal benefit under the Old Age Security Act.

In another landmark ruling, Vriend v. Alberta, [1998] 1 S.C.R. 493, in which a college teacher's employment was terminated because of his sexual orientation, the Supreme Court held that provincial human rights legislation that left out the ground of sexual orientation violated section 15(1).

Shortly after that, sexual orientation was added to the Human Rights Act, but it wasn't until 2005 – just 17 years ago – that same-sex marriage was legalized in all provinces.

In that same year, the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and Nova Scotia allowed same-sex couples to adopt. Today, another challenge facing same-sex couples arises if they plan to adopt a child from overseas because many countries have not legalized adoption by same-sex parents. Another lasting loophole regarding adoption occurs in the situation when same-sex couples opt for conceiving a child. Only the birth parent has rights over the baby. To legalize their status as parents, the parent not giving birth must legally adopt their child or get a declaration of parentage.

In another significant victory, a lesbian successfully took on the Canadian Armed Forces after being dismissed because of its discriminatory policy against gay and lesbian service members. On the day Michelle Douglas' trial began in 1992, the Chief of Staff reversed the policy, leaving the door open for all to serve our country.

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s had the effect of stigmatizing gay men, and this impact has continued until today. In the mid-1980s, the Red Cross, which ran Canada's blood donor system, instituted rules around gay men giving blood. Today, men are eligible to give blood only if it has been more than three months since their last sexual contact. In September of 2022, Canadian Blood Services will finally end these restrictive eligibility criteria.

From the 2010s to now, issues of bullying and gender identity for trans people and youth have come to the forefront.

In 2017, the federal government passed Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination. 

Most recently, in December 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to ban conversion therapies (the attempt to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity).

Waving the rainbow flag has become a tradition in Canada, to the point where some deprecate it as mere corporate virtue-signalling. Unfortunately, as we see homophobia raise its ugly head yet again in other countries, it's clear the battle for hearts and minds is mutually dependent on the battles still being fought in the courts. In this country, at least, the legal recognition provided by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is matched by our genuine intentions for societal inclusiveness, so we all must celebrate this culturally significant event and the stories of the LGBTQI+ community.

Happy Pride!