Immigration is no walk in the park. In addition to the standard difficulties that come with leaving one’s country, LGBT newcomers to Canada face a unique set of challenges; they may be relocating in order to legally marry or joining a Canadian partner. In many cases they are refugees, fleeing countries of origin where homosexuality is still illegal and may even be punishable by death.
According to the city’s website, Ottawa has one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the world. Between 2001 and 2006, more than 35,000 new immigrants settled in Ottawa. Many local organizations have programs aimed at newcomers, which is why it is surprising that there are almost no groups in the city designed specifically to meet the needs of LGBT immigrants. That is about to change.
The board of directors at Pink Triangle Services (PTS) is nearing completion of a three-year strategic plan that specifically includes programming for settlement and immigration services. “It’s something that we’ve heard from a number of community members, that there is that gap,” says Claudia Van den Heuvel, executive director of PTS. The first part of the plan involves reaching out to existing organizations, specifically the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization. “What we want to do is something that’s more proactive and create something that has structure,” she says.
One of the major issues for LGBT immigrants is accessing safe, queer-friendly spaces. People coming from severely homophobic cultures might not be able to leave their fear behind when they immigrate. “I think in places that are serving a generalized population there might still be the fear, because they’re still interacting with their community members on the cultural front, and they may still be experiencing a lot of stigma in doing that, whereas in a place like PTS, everybody that’s here is supportive of being somehow queer-identified,” Van den Heuvel says, noting it’s important to have a dialogue with the people who need these services. “We already do have a lot of people of colour that are participating in PTS, so I think that’s a good starting point for being able to reach out.”
One key PTS service is QPOC-IT, a weekly discussion group for queer people of colour often attended by members of the immigrant community. “I would say that it varies month to month, but generally there is at least one or two people who have immigrated to Canada,” says Kayla Miller, volunteer and programs coordinator. “Within the group, [immigration] has definitely been a topic of discussion, with several folks sharing what kind of barriers they have faced trying to navigate the system. We’ve definitely been discovered through Google searches from people looking to connect with the community. Our hope is to reach out to more organizations and services which work with migrant and newcomer populations to let them know about QPOC-IT and the other services we offer.”
For now, PTS is focused on creating services to assist newcomers when they arrive in Ottawa, although it remains open to working with organizations that help with the immigration process. “I think, again, it comes down to what people that are affected by those situations, how they feel about it. We don’t want to make decisions as people who are not facing those situations and make decisions for them,” Van den Heuvel says. Language also presents a barrier in reaching the immigrant population — an issue that is further complicated by the very nuanced terms that often apply to the queer community.
As for the lack of services in Ottawa, Van den Heuvel believes it’s a systemic issue. “I think if you speak to a lot of people, they’ll say that the queer community has historically been not the most welcoming place for GLBTTQ people of colour,” she says. “The services have always been needed, but the people that have been in control haven’t been able to hear what was needed because of the barriers that have been in place.”