Spectrum: The Canadian history of Pride

Here are some Canadian queer history milestones we should all know more about

Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium (Exploding Boy at the English-language Wikipedia), MP Svend Robinson (Montrealais at the English-language Wikipedia), and Ted Northe (The Vancouver Archives, Photo by Ray Bertrand)

Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium (Exploding Boy at the English-language Wikipedia), MP Svend Robinson (Montrealais at the English-language Wikipedia), and Ted Northe (The Vancouver Archives, Photo by Ray Bertrand)

One inevitable thing with the arrival of Pride and the donning of rainbows is the remembrance of key settings and players in queer history. 

The Stonewall riots, Harvey Milk and the progress he made in San Francisco, James Baldwin, Larry Kramer, are all important people of the LGBTQ2S+ community’s history. However, many of these places and people have one other thing in common: they’re all from the United States.

This is not meant to minimize their impact or suggest that it is limited to their home countries. Their contributions to our history, our literature, and the fight for our rights are all significant and absolutely deserve to be commemorated. However, queer people do not just exist in the United States — and neither does the movement that allows us to celebrate Pride. 

In fact, with recently being named one of the most LGBTQ2S+ friendly countries globally — a whole 19 places above the U.S. — and having recently passed a ban on conversion therapy in the House of Commons, it’s no surprise that Canada has a thriving queer community.

In 1969, when NASA sent a man to the moon, all the cool kids were going to Woodstock. And Pierre Trudeau was the Prime Minister, homosexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized in Canada. Trudeau famously summarized the bill by saying, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” 

This monumental milestone was achieved in part thanks to ted northe, a Canadian drag queen and gay rights activist who, 11 years prior, organized his first protest on the steps of what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery in full drag. 

At the time, dressing up in drag was illegal in Canada, so northe stuffed his bra with men’s socks and wore men’s underwear — the three qualifying pieces of clothing to avoid arrest.

Later in the 1960s, northe organized a national letter-writing campaign that caught the attention of Trudeau, who was the justice minister at the time. These efforts helped secure an important first step for the queer community across Canada, and northe has been commemorated in Vancouver with ted northe Lane, which stretches from Burrard Street to Stanley Park.

From there, the first gay rights protests took place across the country in August of 1971, followed by the first gay pride celebrations, including Vancouver’s, in August of 1973. 

However, the march towards progress for LGBTQ2S+ rights was not without struggles. In 1974, Adrienne Potts, Pat Murphy, Sue Wells, and Heather Elizabeth were forcibly ejected by police from the Brunswick House Tavern in Toronto after singing their own lyrics to “I Enjoy Being a Girl”. 

They were charged with disturbing the peace and obstruction of justice and were subjected to verbal harassment and assault and denied the right to phone a lawyer. After the charges against them were dropped, the women charged the arresting officers with assault, only for the officers to be acquitted due to switching their hats and confusing their badge numbers. The case of “The Brunswick Four” — as well as “Operation Soap” in 1981, the Sex Garage Raids of 1990, and the Pussy Palace raids of 2000 — is considered a tipping point in Canadian queer history, and the resistance that arose from these events was key to our progress.

It wasn’t just at bars and bathhouses that gay people experienced trouble from the police and the courts. Queer literature was also subject to scrutiny from the government, with Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto and Little Sister’s in Vancouver being a frequent target of raids for possessing materials declared to be “obscene.” 

Little Sister’s owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, however, became fed up with the raids. On June 7, 1990, Little Sister’s launched a constitutional challenge arguing that the seizure of their materials amounted to discrimination against the LGBTQ2S+ community and a violation of the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case covered 20 years of government harassment starting in 1986 and three anti-gay terrorist bombings, but in 2000, a partial victory was achieved. 

When the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada, the court ruled that, while Customs could still seize materials deemed “obscene,” the onus was on Customs to provide reasonable proof that it was obscenity rather than on the importer to prove it was not. The decision was a major victory for Little Sister’s and the queer community in Vancouver, and the bookstore is now a revered landmark of Vancouver’s queer history.

In fact, one could argue that many of Canada’s important queer milestones have come about in more recent years — starting in the late 80s. In 1988, British Columbian MP Svend Robinson came out as the first openly gay member of parliament, followed by Réal Ménard in 1994 and Libby Davies in 2001. 

The federal court lifted its ban on gays and lesbians in the military in 1992, while 1993 saw the Supreme Court rule that gays and lesbians fearing persecution in their home countries could apply for refugee status in Canada. In 1995, sexual orientation was included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with inclusion in the Canadian Human Rights Act occurring in 1996. 

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that individual provinces could not discriminate based on sexual orientation. 

In 2000 the Liberals put into law that same-sex common-law couples were entitled to the same benefits and obligations as their straight counterparts. And 2005 saw one of the most significant milestones in Canadian queer history with the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, making Canada the fourth country in the world to do so.

As official Pride Month has ended (despite preparations for Vancouver Pride being underway), it’s important to remember that progress is still being made. Trans issues have only become a point of discussion in the last 30 years, and the last five have seen a concerning rise in virulent transphobic discourse. 

It’s also only been recent that queer people of colour have been included in the conversation, with their voices and roles in the gay rights movement having been either erased or overlooked. However, this is why, nearly 50 years after Stonewall, Pride remains important: it’s a celebration of how far we’ve come — and a reminder of the fight to get here.