In major cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax, Pride parties shut down major roadways and draw huge crowds. But even in 2019, LGBTQ+ celebrations are far from universal.
By Craig Kielburger
In January, 12-year-old Ethan came out as bisexual. Having grown up in diverse Ottawa, host of Capital Pride, Ethan thought nothing of coming out to his peers even though his family had recently moved to the nearby smaller town of Arnprior. Some were accepting, but others treated him like he had a disease. Ethan had anxiety attacks about going to school. One day, he simply didn’t show up for class. He didn’t answer the phone at home. Ethan’s mother, Sophie Smith-Doré, remembered all the headlines she’d read of LGBTQ+ youth driven to suicide. She rushed home from work, police and paramedics in tow.
This story has a happy ending. Ethan simply couldn’t face school that day. Smith-Doré found him home safe—she was in a worse state than he was—and resolved to give her son a more inclusive community. She spearheaded a campaign for Arnprior, and the neighbouring township of McNab-Braeside, to officially recognize Pride Week for the first time.
“Cities like Toronto are lit up for Pride, and we think this represents Canada. But that’s not the case everywhere,” says Omid Razavi, director of communications for PFLAG Canada, an organization supporting families of LGBTQ+ youth that worked with Smith-Doré on the campaign.
In Vancouver, Calgary, and Halifax where Pride parties shut down major roadways and draw huge crowds, it’s easy to take these decades-old celebrations of inclusivity for granted. Yet from Airdrie, AB, to Arnprior, to Antigonish, NS, many smaller towns are only just coming on board. The national organization Fierté Canada Pride currently lists 125 official Pride celebrations across Canada—but our country has more than 3,000 municipalities.
It’s not that small towners are any less accepting than urbanites. But without large, visible LGBTQ+ populations and resources found in urban centres, there is also less understanding around why these events and symbols are necessary. Meanwhile, small town LGBTQ+ residents like Ethan can feel even more isolated and alone. That makes recognizing Pride even more important.
At first, Smith-Dore’s campaign to raise a Pride flag in Arnprior generated vitriolic debates on the community Facebook group. Residents warned that her activism could hurt her small nutrition consultant business. But many others were supportive. Local companies offered to print Pride bumper stickers and Velcro clothing badges for free.
After two months of campaigning, Arnprior council voted to raise the flag. McNab-Braeside followed a few weeks later.
“Having that flag is a beacon of light, love and hope, like when you’re travelling abroad and see a Canadian flag,” says Smith-Doré.
We can all contribute to more inclusive communities. Hang a small rainbow flag in your car window or business storefront. Your town might not have the resources for a parade, but why not campaign for a mini-Pride Day in a community centre or school gym? Or host an LGBTQ+ meet-and-greet in your own home. And you don’t have to be the parent of an LGBTQ+ youth to start a local PFLAG chapter.
On June 7, Ethan was given the honour of hoisting the rainbow flag over the town office of McNab-Braeside. That afternoon, he watched another flag rise in Arnprior.
Many more small townships in the Ottawa Valley displayed Pride symbols for the first time this year. They’ve started calling it “the River of Rainbows.” Hopefully, it’s the start of a national trend.