5 min

A queer’s history of Ottawa Pride

From picnics to street parties and back again

Exploding from 50 participants to 50,000 per year, the story of Ottawa Pride illustrates that growing up ain’t easy. What started as a scenic barbecue in 1986 has grown into a weeklong 100-odd-event juggernaut, a cornerstone of Ottawa’s gay community.

While Ottawa’s Pride may not be the million-go-go-boy march that other cities boast of, many people are proud that Ottawa’s Pride Parade has remained accessible and community based. While there are now cries from within the gay community to reign in the corporate-sponsored fab-ab flashiness of other Prides, Ottawa has managed to stay largely away from such distractions.

Which is not to say that Ottawa’s Pride Festival is short on spectacle. Whether playing watermelon football or attending a 2,500-person rave, the events of Ottawa Pride have always been out of the ordinary. In fact, no summary could do the festivities justice; Ottawa’s Pride Week has had a hand in over 1000 parties, concerts, mixers, and fundraisers in the last two decades.

Better gay than grumpy

About 50 people gathered at Sandy Hill’s Strathcona Park on a sunny June afternoon, according to Gabriella Goliger, a former GO Info reporter. Held the same Sunday as Toronto’s and New York’s, Ottawa’s Pride Day in 1986 was not a parade — it was a picnic.

“It was friendly and upbeat; it was intimate,” she recalls.

People ate burgers and lazed in the shade. Community members drew on balloons with markers — a far cry from the slick decorations and promotional material of today’s festivals. A photo shows Goliger holding a balloon that reads, “Better gay than grumpy.”

For the next two years, Pride culminated in a picnic rather than a parade — making the Sunday afternoon event the longest-running Ottawa Pride tradition. The venue changed several times in the early years before settling on the Laurier and Elgin lawn — including stints at the Jack Purcell Community Centre, Victoria Island, and perhaps, though we could find no conclusive reference to it, Vincent Massey Park on Riverside Drive.

Ottawa Pride’s inaugural year, 1986, was the only year that the celebration was planned for the same weekend as Toronto’s — the date was moved the next year to accommodate locals who made the trip to Toronto, the date subsequently fluctuating from mid-June to as late as mid-August.

Even these early picnics managed to be a spectacle. For instance, 1988’s event grew into a “gala” garage sale and picnic, while in 1991, participants were warned to wear ratty clothes because organizers planned games of watermelon football and baseball with oranges. A short notice in the local gay rag, GO Info after the 1988 bash — which featured a gay softball game — noted that there were “several apparently intoxicated women on the field who caused the organizers some embarrassment since Alderman Diane Holmes was present to throw the opening pitch.” And a good time was had by all.

The Lord is my shepherd and knows I’m gay

The 20th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riot was 1989. It was also the 20th anniversary of Canada’s decriminalization of “buggery” (the logic being that it was a mental disorder and not a crime). Ottawa had hosted protest marches dating back to the ’70s, but it had never held a Pride Parade. Many of Ottawa’s community members had marched before, but only as visitors to Toronto’s festivities, albeit under their own Gays of Ottawa banner.

In 1989, Pride in Ottawa was a loosely organized weeklong party, which culminating in the city’s first-ever parade to the picnic site. While organizers fretted about turnout before the event, they were pleased when a “healthy, robust” 300 marchers, cars, and wheelchairs showed up. That number would climb to 2000 over the next five years.

A banner carried by the Metropolitan Community Church at the first parade read, “The Lord is my shepherd and knows I’m gay.”

I’m not gay but my boyfriend is

Two weeks after the City of Ottawa proclaimed Jun 17, 1990 “Lesbian and Gay Pride Day,” the city revoked its proclamation — because councillors realized that the date was Father’s Day. Pride Week coordinator Graham Haig took the city to court. He won (with the nail-biting decision handed down on the eve of the Parade, no less), but Ottawa Pride would spend much of the ’90s mired in local political battles over such proclamations.

In 1991, the city omitted the word “pride” from its declaration, declaring “Lesbian and Gay Day” instead. Organizers swallowed the bitter pill, but when council voted against including bisexuals in the official proclamation — using the damning language of “alternative lifestyles” instead — the city again landed in court. That battle was not resolved until shortly before mayor Jacquelin Holzman retired in 1996.

Other political battles spurred on the Pride Parade. In what is famously known as “The Rae Betrayal,” then-Ontario-Premiere Bob Rae announced that Bill 167 — which would have given gay couples “the same rights and responsibilities” as hetero pairings — would be decided by a free vote, dooming it to failure. Ottawa’s community immediately took to the streets, and the Pride Parade held a month later was the biggest they’d seen at the time.

A photograph from one of the political early-’90s parades shows out gay then-regional councilor Alex Munter wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.”

It was not until 1997 that the Pride flag was first raised at city hall and the issue of Pride proclamations was finally put to rest. But the spectre of homophobia persists, with accusations of systemic discrimination bubbling to the surface over the treatment of the city’s festival grants and emergency loans.

Ten percent not enough

Ottawa Pride grew steadily throughout the ’90s.

After being mentioned at a meeting of Gays Of Ottawa (by then formally called ALGO — the Association Of Lesbians And Gays Of Ottawa) in November 1993, planning for Pride Week dropped off their list of priorities. A 100-word article in Capital Xtra the following spring prompted a planning committee to begin their work in earnest.

When 2,000 people showed up for the parade, they saw eight floats and over 20 groups formally represented. The picnic by then featured a beer tent and a dance. A chalk message written on a bridge on the parade route read, “Ten percent not enough, RECRUIT.”

A $700 shortfall (out of a roughly $5,000 budget) was to be recouped in post-Pride fundraisers.

The following year, planners aimed for a $25,000 budget, which was to include rides, games, and live music at the picnic. But by May, plans had been scaled back since only $800 had been raised; when the party was over, poor accounting had left Pride several thousand dollars in debt — mostly owed to committee members, amid accusations of conflict of interest.

With the rapid growth of the parade — 300 participants in 1989, 3,000 participants in 1995, 30,000 participants by 1998 — there were bound to be growing pains. The $2000-5000 debt after the 1995 parade seemed staggering at the time, but a business-minded chair elected to run the festivities for 1996 was about to change all that.

God must be a lesbian — look at the weather

“It was like having two full-time jobs,” says Yvon Vaillant, chair of Ottawa Pride in 1996.

Many people remember the Rainbow Party. First arranged as a fundraiser in 1996, the party brought together members of the gay community — men and women, young and old, from leather men to circuit partiers — under one roof. The bar at the Rainbow Party’s Lansdowne Park location was staffed by six local bars. Vaillant cleverly secured agreement from each of the bars that they would not hold competing parties on that day. The event drew 1,500 people its opening year, twice the break-even point, and the party became one of the most successful events in the Pride calendar. The Rainbow Party was also one of the ingredients in a successful fundraising campaign, which left Pride with a $16,000 surplus.

Conservative fundraising initiatives were launched. Wanting to buy an enormous 1800-square-foot flag, the Pride Committee began selling sponsorships of the flag at $5 per square foot. The Committee raised more than enough in 1997 to pay for the more than $1,000 project.

The late ’90s were the golden age of Ottawa Pride. After incorporating as a not-for-profit, Pride raised over $80,000 in 1997 — not including contributions in kind, up from roughly $35,000 the year before — resulting in a second $15,000 surplus. Attendance ballooned: 8000 people at the parade, 2,200 at the Rainbow Party, and 30,000 participants in the week’s festivities by the following year.

At 1998’s 10,000-strong parade, Pride committee member Kevin Hatt was jubilant. “God must be a lesbian — look at the weather!” he told a Capital Xtra reporter.