Photos by Tania Heath

As thousands blanketed downtown St. John’s late last month in what appears to be the city’s largest annual Pride Parade, organizers breathed a sigh of relief.

It was the first celebration since the group that organizes the festivities came under new direction. 

Earlier this year, St. John’s Pride elected new leadership, who then made the risky decision to put off a Pride festival in just six weeks. Working with an array of other community organizations, they rolled out celebrations that spanned much of July and saw the highest participation rates ever.

Pride Chair Eddy St. Coeur credits the community with making it all possible.

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“The community is the only thing that saved Pride this year,” he said. “We turned to the community and said: we need your help — and community showed up.”

Putting it all together was a feat, but the month of events was bolstered by intersecting festivals such as the grassroots, community-based Peace Love n’ Pride, and the Pride on Campus events organized by the student movement.

While organizers are thrilled with the outcome, they’re looking to the future with a combination of excitement and grim determination. There remain difficult internal conversations to be had within the community, amid the backdrop of an increasingly vocal and violent far-right anti-LGBTQ fringe.

Parade brings out thousands

The parade marked the culmination of this year’s Pride festival. Dozens of local organizations assumed their positions along New Gower Street at noon on July 23: dance troupes and bands, banks and corporations, political parties, and community non-profits. The set-up assumed a festival atmosphere as participants painted themselves in bright colours, filled the air with bubbles and music, danced and chatted with hundreds of spectators who strolled along, all while taking photos. The mood was upbeat, buoyant, celebratory.

Photo by Tania Heath.

Two of the most striking floats involved full-sized boats, one of which belonged to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“We’re here today to support anybody who is of any persuasion,” said Elaine Hynick, with the department’s science division. “My cousin Ken is gay and he passed away a couple of years ago and I’m going to walk in support of him and anybody else who is going through a hard time or transitioning.”

The Coast Guard also had a boat in the parade.

“The Canadian Coast Guard believes in diversity and inclusion so we like to be here to support our colleagues both at sea and on shore,” said Kathleen Wheaton.

The labour movement had a large and visible presence too.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees has participated for years. But it’s “especially important this year because it’s not just about flying the flag and one day it’s over,” said Campaigns and Communications Coordinator Keith Dunne. “People’s lives are actually at stake, and particularly trans people are under attack and we need to stand up and we need to show the community that this is about all of us together—that there’s more of us, that we are the actual majority.

“We see what’s going on in other provinces like New Brunswick so it’s important to send a very clear message that we’re not importing that here and […] this province is open and welcoming and accepting of all people in our community.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters also led a contingent. “It’s really important to show the kids involved in our program that we accept everybody regardless of however they identify or express themselves,” said Rachel Pope, an enrolment coordinator with the organization.

Gerard Farrell is President of the NL Medical Association, which brought a large team to the parade.

“We’re here to support all of our friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers in being who they are,” he said. “When you see some of the stuff that’s going on elsewhere, we need to support this community, which is part of our community. If ever there was a time, it’s now. We need to be here, we need to show the rest of the world it’s okay to be who you are and there’s never too much love in the world.”

Farrell is deeply worried by the recent rise in far-right violence.

“I have lots of friends who are in the LGBTQ community, I have family members in the LGBTQ community, and I worry about them,” he said. “I thought we’d made so much progress and now we’re going backwards and it makes it even more important for us to be here today and say it’s not right. We’re not going back, we’re going to move forward.”

The increasing violence of the far-right also worries Julie Temple, who marched with Parents and Caregivers of Gender-Diverse Youth.

“Sometimes what scares me more than anything is that people seem to think that it’s just in the States and other places, but we’re seeing it creep in more and more here. We really have to be on guard.

“I want to see government and policymakers stand up for trans rights and start to make real policy changes to support our kids within the schools, or adults within workplaces, and for access to health care. There’s so many barriers that trans people face to receive the same kind of healthcare that cis people would receive.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

The entire route was lined with spectators, many bedecked in rainbows themselves. Some came to watch, others to cheer on friends, family, and colleagues.

“I think it’s great,” said Erica Smith. “Love is love and it’s important to be supportive of everybody. My daughter is 10 and her teacher is really very supportive and very informative this year so she was really invested in coming. So we’re here for her and she’s marching with her dad in the parade.”

After a long, slow climb up Duckworth Street, the parade looped around Military Road and ended at Bannerman Park. There, the festivities culminated in an afternoon of musical and drag performances that stretched into the evening.

The long road to the Pride Parade

St. John’s Pride began the summer on a rocky note. An annual general meeting scheduled to take place at the Knights of Columbus on May 28 was relocated to the Anna Templeton Centre following community outcry over the KoC’s anti-abortion stance. The organization had operated without a full board for over a year, following a combination of vacancies and resignations. Controversy and debate also surrounded the role of police in Pride. 

The rescheduled AGM was well-attended but contentious. The outgoing chair brought in private security for the event, and warned that questions deemed irrelevant would not be permitted and warned attendees could be evicted.

“I am shocked and confused as to why they would hire private security to have at their AGM,” said Jude Benoit. “That was not okay.”

Benoit was one of those who attempted to raise concerns about police and racism in Pride, but was cut off. Benoit and close to a dozen others walked out of the meeting in protest.

Nicolas Keough attended the meeting because he was concerned about the lack of communication and response from the previous Pride board. He attended his first parade in 2022 and wanted to make sure Pride had a large public presence this year to counter the far-right.

He describes the annual general meeting as “awful,” noting it was “really disorganized” and “uninviting” due to the private security. “I understand some groups that don’t want cops present will have their own community security, but this didn’t feel like that,” Keough recalled. “This felt aggressive…it felt like policing the space.”

He was angered that people were cut off and weren’t given the opportunity to air their concerns and grievances with the former board. When Benoit and others walked out in protest, Keough joined them.

“I walked out mainly because valid points were brought up…and [people] were cut off. They voiced their grievances about how the organization had been racist in the past, and no apologies were made.”

Candidates running for Pride board positions also joined the protestors outside to hear their concerns. The chaotic meeting ended following the election of a new board. On June 8, the new board issued a public apology for how the previous leadership had handled the meeting.

Pride Festival came together in weeks

St. John’s Pride has been wracked by internal tension and debates over the role of corporations and police in Pride for years. But the past couple of years have been particularly difficult for the organization. St. Coeur said it was fear that this year’s Pride festival might not happen that spurred him to run for the Board at the May meeting.

“We can’t be the capital city where people don’t have a Pride organization and don’t have a Pride festival,” he said.

“People need the festival to find their community. For people who are new coming into the community or are on their journey and have come out, a Pride festival is that beacon that signals to them, ‘Okay, that’s where I can find my people, that’s where I can find my community.’

“The longer it takes for somebody to find their 2SLGBTQI+ community, the longer they’re floating out there in this netherland without supports, feeling like they don’t fit in society or that they have to carry this burden. If a handful of people make new connections and find a place where they can belong, that’s a success in my books.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

The new board had its work cut out for them. St. Coeur is quick to point out that July’s events were in fact a mix of three community festivals.

The student movement has put off a Pride on Campus festival for at least two decades. It’s organized by the Memorial University Students’ Union, Canadian Federation of Students, and other student groups. At least a dozen events including comedy and trivia nights, film screenings, a BIPOC panel, clothing swaps, concerts and more, took place on campus from July 15-22. Several of those were collaborations with other community groups, and all were open to the public.

Peace Love n’ Pride is a grassroots community festival that celebrated its fourth year in 2023. It was formed by trans and queer community members in response to concerns about the growing corporatization of St. John’s Pride.

“We felt that St. John’s Pride was really not accessible, they were not doing anti-racist work, they were not doing sober spaces, it was very corporate, very rainbow capitalism,” said Benoit, one of the co-founders of Peace Love n’ Pride. They received a grant and put off their first weeklong festival in 2020. Their budget was less than $1,000.

“We don’t have bylaws, we have standards […] that all the events have to be as accessible as we can make them. They have to be free, and they have to be sober spaces where people, if they wanted to, can bring their kids. We did that so that everybody could be included.”

This year’s Peace Love n’ Pride festival ran from July 14-23 and featured 18 community events, from group meet-ups and healing spaces, to games nights and workshops around disability rights and environmental issues.

“We had a lot of interest from people from the west coast and central Newfoundland in doing events and working alongside us,” said Benoit. “As someone who came from the bay years ago I’ve kind of always wanted it to be like that. I think there’s a lot we can do to help communities be more queer-friendly. As a Pride organization I don’t think there’s a better job for us to do than making sure all [those who don’t] get to come out to St. John’s to attend events [can] have their own.”

Benoit said Peace Love n’ Pride is looking at acquiring non-profit status in order to grow the festival, but emphasized the organizers intend for it to remain grassroots and abolitionist.

St. John’s Pride hopes to stay active year-round

As for St. John’s Pride, the new board is encouraged by the July turnout and hopes to be more active across the province in the coming year. St. Coeur says the organization is working on a partnership statement with local corporations to affirm their commitment to advancing the queer community within organizations in the city. There are plans in the works for a drag festival on George Street in August, and they’re also developing a series of cultural events for later in the fall.

“We’re looking at having more low-barrier events throughout the year to get people coming out and coming together to do that education and advocacy work,” he said.

Photo by Tania Heath.

St. Coeur hopes St. John’s Pride can also help smaller communities across the province in organizing their own regional festivals. He also hopes the organization can become a vehicle to fundraise for community groups like Quadrangle—Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial 2SLGBTQIA+ community centre—and that they can play a political advocacy role as well. St. Coeur, who also works as Communications Director with the NL NDP, says two urgent priorities are the need for provincial government funding for Quadrangle as well as addressing the trans health care crisis in the province.

“Quadrangle’s been fighting for funding for their community centre for over eight years and has not got a red cent from government,” he said. “We have political parties in power talking about how much they support the community, but then have an organization like Quadrangle put through hoop after hoop and still coming up empty-handed in their efforts to set up a community centre that’s sorely needed. The provincial government needs to make the investment to support a community like ours that’s very vulnerable.”

He said trans health care has to be better centred in training and educational curricula, and that gender-affirming healthcare needs to be available in all parts of the province.

“Members of the trans community have very particular health needs and it’s not acceptable for those not to be offered and available in this province,” he said. He also warned that the NL Sexual Health Centre is underfunded and under-resourced, adding to the provincial health care crisis.

Difficult conversations are necessary 

St. John’s Pride board and community members acknowledge that for Pride to move forward, there are difficult conversations to be had. The role of police in Pride is one of them. St. Coeur acknowledged the differing perspectives that exist on the issue.

“On the one hand we have older queer people who remember a point in time where it was written policy for enforcement agencies at municipal, provincial and federal levels to target people from the queer community with the express interest of destroying their lives, like in the [Toronto] Bathhouse Raids. Now we’re at a point where enforcement agencies want to walk in solidarity with us—so to older queer people that change is a milestone.” St. Coeur also noted that today some members of the community work as police officers.

“But we have members of our community—particularly sex workers, Indigenous people, Black people, People of Colour—who are overpoliced. And their lived experience is that an enforcement uniform does not equal safety. So there is a traumatic response when they see those uniforms marching.

“And then we have ever-increasing hate targeted towards our community. And we have to take these threats against our personal safety seriously. We have to take safety as a real concern.”

This year, St. John’s Pride attempted to navigate those issues by not having security or police agencies marching in uniform in the parade, and by having road shut-downs coordinated by ambulances rather than police. But police were still present during the march in a security capacity.

“It’s not a perfect scenario,” admitted St. Coeur. “We still have work to do.”

Not everyone was happy with the compromise. But for Benoit, the new board’s willingness to dialogue and seek direction from the community is a hopeful sign. “There were no uniformed, armed police officers invited to be in the parade, and if they can make that into policy I’ll be happy,” they said. 

Benoit also warned that the parade and festival need to be more attentive to accessibility concerns, and to build trust with anti-racism groups. “I have seen the work that they’re trying to do and I’ve seen enough to believe that if they can keep at it for a couple of years they might be able to get to a place where they can work with community.”

Keough, who walked out of the annual general meeting, also credits the new board’s efforts. “I think it was honestly shocking that they were able to pull something like this off in such a short amount of time,” he said. “It’s a real testament to their organizational skills. But I think that there’s definitely conversations to be had in the future for putting the politics back in Pride.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

Keough doesn’t support the involvement of corporations like Bud Light—a key sponsor of this year’s festival—given the company’s caving-in to right-wing homophobic and transphobic attacks in the United States this year. He was also critical about the presence of local politicians at the parade whom he feels have done little or nothing to help the queer and trans community in the province.

“I don’t feel that those [politicians] should feel welcome at Pride. I think Pride should not be a space for people who are actively harming queer people, even if you are part of the community. Our community has been so marginalized and abused by government—why should government be there?”

Keough also wants to see St. John’s Pride centre anti-racist work in its operations. He says it’s important not to ignore the ongoing oppressions still faced by many queer, trans, and other marginalized communities.

“White queer people have a little more privilege in society now than they used to, and when you’re in a community that has had so little privilege for so long, and then you’re given a little bit of it, it can be intoxicating,” he said. “You want to believe that the fight’s over.

“The fight’s not over until we completely dismantle the structures that did this to us,” he said. “Pride isn’t just about being gay. It’s about queerness as a political idea as well.”

Photo by Tania Heath.
Photo by Tania Heath.
Photo by Tania Heath.
Photo by Tania Heath.
Photo by Tania Heath.
Photo by Tania Heath.

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