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Province marks historical first, at fore of Canada’s message to Russia

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On Friday the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador raised the Pride flag on Confederation Hill for the first time in the province’s history. Few to none could have predicted its impetus would be legislation passed in Moscow.

The ceremony, attended by three cabinet ministers, two NDP MHAs and a half dozen LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) activists, coincided with the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where recently legislated anti-gay laws in Russia have triggered an outcry and protests from the international community.

St. John’s, Corner Brook, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Gander and Stephenville all hoisted the flag this week, alongside and even prompting other towns and cities across Canada to do the same, including Montreal, whose mayor recently told the CBC his city was following St. John’s lead.

The movement began at home when two LGBTQ activists called on the provincial government, the City of St. John’s and other municipalities to join the global movement to express opposition to Olympic host country Russia’s regressive 2013 law prohibiting the spreading of “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relations.

“We felt that it was time to stand together with the LGBT community around the world seeing as the spotlight…is on Russia right now and they’re going through some hard times…there,” explained Josh Eddy, one of the St. John’s activists and publisher of local LGBT magazine The ‘Out’port. “We wanted to highlight our support and show that we stand in solidarity with the local community (in Russia).”

Mount Pearl North MHA and Minister of Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs Steve Kent was joined by fellow cabinet ministers Joan Shea and Darin King for the flag raising outside the provincial legislature on Friday.

Cabinet ministers Joan Shea, Darin King and Steve Kent, and LGBTQ activists Josh Eddy and Robyn Noseworthy speak to the press in St. John's after raising the Pride flag on Confederation Hill for the first time. Photo by Justin Brake.
Cabinet ministers Joan Shea, Darin King and Steve Kent, and LGBTQ activists Josh Eddy and Robyn Noseworthy speak to the press in St. John’s after raising the Pride flag on Confederation Hill for the first time. Photo by Justin Brake.

“This is not about any kind of protest, this is about a celebration,” said Kent. “It’s about a celebration of our unique and diverse province, and it’s about ensuring that human rights everywhere around the world are honoured and celebrated. We’ve made great strides as a society but we still have a lot of work to do. The reality is if any young person in our community is discriminated against or bullied or marginalized for any reason, whether it’s gender or sexual orientation, or religion, or whatever the case may be – that’s not appropriate in today’s society, so today’s a great celebration of human rights.”

Asked why the province did not fly the Pride flag at any point during past St. John’s Pride Week celebrations, Kent said the government “would certainly welcome a request” in 2014 and encouraged Pride Week organizers to “contact us early so that we can make the appropriate arrangements.”

Shea, the minister responsible for the Status of Women, said raising the Pride flag was more about making a statement.

“Obviously this is about the Olympics and our stand on where we are with human rights in Newfoundland and Labrador, and part of our violence prevention Initiative…is concerned about violence in our community,” she said. “And one of the groups we see as vulnerable is the gay and lesbian community and we want to make sure we’re very strong in our stand in how we feel about what’s going on in the world today.”

Justice Minister King wouldn’t comment on the flag raising and instead saluted 18-year-old Marystown-born figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond, who made her Olympic debut Saturday afternoon with a solid performance in the Ladies Short Program.

The government initially said it would fly the flag for just one day since there are “lots of protocols on the Hill when it comes to flags,” Kent explained Friday morning. But later in the day word spread via social media that it had decided to leave the flag up, as most participating municipalities were, for the duration of the Olympic games.

NDP MHA Gerry Rogers, the province’s first openly gay member to sit in the House of Assembly, attended the Friday morning ceremony and commended the province for its recent advancements on sexual and gender rights, including its decision last year to include gender identity as a prohibited form of discrimination under provincial law.

The step toward gender equality was a result “of the incredible work that activists have done for years,” she explained, but said there’s still work to be done. “Governments are never leaders in the areas of human rights; our human rights are hard won, they’re not given to us.”

Movement or “moment”?

Some Olympians have been vocal in their support for LGBTQ rights in Russia. On Friday the entire German team showed up at the Sochi 2014 opening ceremonies in rainbow-coloured attire. But some in the local LGBTQ community say the Olympic games are not an appropriate time or means for human rights activism.

Perin Squires, an LGBTQ activist and former volunteer with St. John’s Pride Inc., likens the flag raising events to “a form of inactive activism (that) allows people to pat themselves on the back because they think they’re making a difference in Russia from the comfort of their homes.

‘How will I continue to make sure the struggle is visible during and after the Olympics, when the Pride flags are lowered?’  – LGBTQ rights advocate Perin Squires

“It’s not to say it’s a bad thing, it’s (just) not useful,” Squires says. “It’s a question we have to ask ourselves: will anyone in Russia see this? And if they do, what sort of impact will it have? Campaigns like this make it easy for us to feel good about ourselves – like good global citizens – but we have a responsibility to make sure that we as Canadians and Newfoundlanders are justified in those feelings. Like: ‘What are we doing here at home for LBGTQ rights?’ ‘What work is still to be done?’ ‘How will I continue to make sure the struggle is visible during and after the Olympics, when the Pride flags are lowered?’

“I think it’s good in a sense that it’s creating visibility here and it’s starting conversations here. It’s just that we have to be wary of…pointing fingers at Russia and trying to shove all the responsibility on Russia for the world’s LBGTQ human rights.”

“It seems like we have these old feelings from the Cold War era in regards to Russia and its laws,” says Squires. “And I’m not saying I support the LBGTQ propaganda laws in Russia, it’s just that we have other places like Uganda where you get the death penalty for being an out LBGTQ person, and there were no flags for that, no outcry, no outpour of visual solidarity that we’re seeing for the Olympics.”

Jennifer McCreath, a St. John’s-based trans activist and double gold medal winner at the 2009 World Outgames in Copenhagen, boycotted the Pride flag raising on Friday because, she says, it takes the attention off the athletes.

“There is a time and place to do gay rights activism work and I don’t think this is appropriate timing. These events, which will likely feature speeches from heterosexual politicians–and members of the gay community who are not athletes–are only being done to further their own political agendas.

“[W]hether it’s Tom Marshall, Kathy Dunderdale or Danny Williams, the policies that this government has had for trans people have been deplorable,” she continues. “If they’re genuinely interested in supporting human rights, then they need to start right here at home.

“We’ve seen the change in legislation for human rights, which is a great first step. But the next thing that needs to happen is the healthcare policies, the fact that MCP is not covering medically necessary trans procedures that are recommended by doctors. There’s also challenges with regards to certain trans people not getting identification documents amended. We’re talking about pretty basic stuff that affects trans people in their everyday life.”

Province-wide progress

On Friday Stephenville also raised the Pride flag for the first time as a way to “add our voice to the displeasure with the discrimination against the LGBT people,” mayor Tom O’Brien told The Independent on Friday. “I mean, discrimination in any form against any group of people is simply just wrong, whether it’s your sexual orientation or your religious beliefs or ethic background, or whatever the case may be,” he said. “Everyone should have the right to live in freedom and harmony. It sounds quite simple, but as we know in many parts of the world it’s not that simple.

“When we look at each other as human beings, that’s exactly what we should do: look at each other as equal human beings.”

The Town of Gander also raised its Pride flag on Friday. Councillor Sarah Mcbreairty was involved with Gander’s inaugural Pride flag raising ceremony during Pride Week 2012, and said while there’s still a  lot of work to be done in achieving sexual and gender equality in the the town of 11,000, she is seeing a gradual shift toward inclusivity.

“Everybody (on council) is willing to go along with progressive ideas if you make a good case for things,” Mcbreairty told The Independent Friday evening, explaining how she and the Gander Status of Women Council brought the idea to town council less than two years ago.

The Town of Stephenville raised the Pride flag Friday. Photo by Natasha O'Brien.
The Town of Stephenville raised the Pride flag on Friday for the first time in the town’s history. Photo by Natasha O’Brien.

When same-sex marriage was legislated following a ruling by the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in December 2004, Gander Mayor Claude Elliott resigned as a marriage commissioner. “It’s not right for two people of the same sex to be married,” the CBC reported him as saying. Elliott did not return an interview request from The Independent by the time of publication.

“When I brought it to council I said we all have personal opinions on certain issues, but there are things that we as Canadians stand for, and that’s human rights and equality,” said Mcbreairty. “I don’t think having a personal opinion against members of the LBGT community would really play into it. Because…we represent human rights and equality, so over in Russia do we really want our athletes to feel that they can’t be themselves when they go over there?

“I guess the tone is changing (in Gander) because we’re a growing community so we’re getting a lot of people come in from outside, and they’ve got more progressive views on some things and they want that reflected in the way the town is run,” Mcbreairty continued. “A lot of times it takes a certain amount of bravery to push forward with this kind of stuff, and rightly so – it’s going out on a limb a lot of times with these issues when you’re in a smaller town, so a lot of people are just waiting for that one person to advocate initially, and then the floodgates open and people are willing to support you.”

The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay also raised their Pride flag on Friday.

“(It) kind of felt like it was our way of sending Russia a big Labrador hug,” said Jacinda Beals, a local musician and advocate for LGBTQ rights, “our way of letting them know that we do not agree with the anti-gay laws and that there are people all over the world standing with them.

“But also, the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay raising that flag sends a very clear message to our our local youth, that this is a safe community to be yourself, to be accepted, no matter who you are,” she added. “I think that’s a pretty cool thing.”

Not mutually exclusive

Outside the Confederation Building, Noseworthy, a former provincial champion swimmer, told reporters she once dreamed of going to the Olympics.

“It’s quite great to see everybody stand behind and show solidarity and support for those there and around the world that just don’t have the same rights as we do here,” she said. “We’re very lucky to be from a province and a country that does accept that.”

Rogers shared the view that, in the face of discriminatory and oppressive laws, the Olympics are an appropriate time to be vocal about human rights.

“It’s absolutely appropriate in this case,” she said. “The Olympics is a gathering of the international community, and there are gay, lesbian and transgendered folks who are involved in the Olympics – either as competitors or as organizers, as sponsors – and aside from creating an atmosphere that is welcoming and inclusive it’s also about safety and basic human rights. It’s essential that countries stand up and make a statement.”

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