Hay River promoting equality with Pride

On Friday before the impending downpour, menacing rain clouds shadowed everything with grey – with one exception. A display on the main drag drawing in passers-by was all about the rainbow.

That’s because Friday was Pride Day in Hay River. Aside from raising awareness, a few activities at the hour long event tried to engage people—offering information, and a smattering of trivia surrounding the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered movement in Canada—some general, some surprising.

“The most interesting fact, the one I didn’t even know, was when the territory finally included sexual orientation into the NWT Human Rights Act,” said event organizer Keelen Simpson.

Many guessed 1980, 1990. The answer is 2002, the last in line of provinces and territories in the country to include sexual orientation into human rights acts, but still ahead of Alberta, who has yet to join the country in this endeavour.

“I learned from this that Canada is not as progressive as I thought it was,” said Simpson.

So, maybe ironically mirroring the above tidbit of trivia, turnout for the event was not huge, but not necessarily as sparse as the year before. Some small towns can be accused of not being on the up and up when it comes to social movements.

That’s why Simpson, friend Jenna Hamilton, and president of the local six division of the PSAC labour union Leon Nason were there to give the town that presence, even if only for a day.

As Simpson poured over trivia, Hamilton laid out more pride-theme inspired rainbow cupcakes and Nason lay in the background discussing important union matters on his cell phone, people wandered up to the table in the late afternoon.

A few sauntered up to grab from a stack of posters with the slogan, “that’s so gay is so yesterday.”

“I think the poster is the perfect example of the things that people don’t think about,” said Simpson. “People will just say it, not thinking, and it’s not necessarily about being hateful. They just might not really understand what they’re saying.”

According to Human Rights First, more than 80 countries still criminalize homosexuality. According to GLBT human rights organization Egale Canada on behalf of Statistics Canada, hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation had doubled in 2008 and by 2009, had increased another 18 per cent. Seventy-four per cent of all hate crimes motivated are violent.

Simpson said that the awareness starts with understanding and changing unequal views and derogatory expressions that have become acceptable.

“I know sometimes people say things that are so backward,” said Simpson.

“A lot of people have misconceptions about GLBT people that if they took the time to learn a little more they could understand.”

Nason deals with all sorts of issues in his line of work. If someone was discriminated against or fired for their sexual orientation, Nason is the man to advocate.

He deals with first level grievances for individuals from Fort Smith to Fort Simpson, and says he sees a fair amount of discrimination. In some cases people have no choice but to reveal their experiences, but he suspects there are still many that keep to themselves.

“More and more people are coming forward, and they’re coming forward a lot more often,” he said. “But (instances of discrimination) go on a lot. Sometimes casual workers won’t speak up because they can be terminated more easily, and people in general don’t like confrontation.”

“The big thing is, workers want to go to work and not be discriminated against by coworkers,” said Nason.

Although he’s a busy man, but he makes sure he’s present at events like these, he said.

“I’m fully behind it,” said Nason. “I want it to get bigger and better every year.”

As Nason hangs back, Simpson tests people on their knowledge, and offers some anecdotes from her personal research that are a little bit closer to home—an article published about “two spirit people.”

The article depicts an NWT man who grew up in the Dene Nation but transplanted to the GLBT friendly metropolis of Vancouver, where his coming-out process was less inhibited. But the man felt more complete when he was made aware of the aboriginal “two spirit” philosophy.  It said that two spirit people exemplified both the masculine and feminine, and were seen as more “spiritually attuned”.

The article also depicted some sobering facts: according to documentation published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in 2007. It stated that studies on the general population noted an “increased risk of suicidal behaviour in homosexual and bisexual youth,” while the same attention was not paid to sexual orientation among their aboriginal counterparts.

While still a ways to go, Simpson, Hamilton and Nason are content with being part of the beginning, with a little help from Freddie Mercury tunes carrying into the humid afternoon air.

“I’ve noticed that Hay River has become more progressive since I’ve been to high school,” said Simpson. “People are noticing. This is a start.”