When mild-mannered, unassuming Gordon Boissonneault struck up a conversation with two fellow transit riders one fateful day last spring, little did he suspect the summer he was letting himself in for. They were with Pride Ottawa and soon had him talking with volunteer coordinator Shaleena Theophilus.
“I said in my interview that I’d do a few things maybe on the margins and maybe long-term planning,” recounts Boissonneault. “She looked at me and said, ‘You know, I think you could probably do a little bit more than that.'”
Theophilus was right. At his first meeting Boissonneault ended up as coordinator of the 2005 Pride parade. Then last fall, he was elected treasurer of Pride Ottawa. When you add in his central role in running the Public Service Pride Network, Boissonneault is clearly the new poster boy for Ottawa’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans volunteer sector. That’s not too shabby for someone who first got involved in community work less than two years ago.
“It caused some of my long-term friends to laugh because I’d sort of not been the most social person in the world prior to that,” says Boissonneault. “To go from being very much on the margins of the community to being the coordinator of the Pride parade, it caused a few people to giggle.”
Boissonneault grew up in Richmond, just outside Ottawa. Twelve years ago, armed with an MA in economics from the University Of Toronto, he joined the federal public service. He’s held positions at the department of Finance, the Bank Of Canada and, most recently, Foreign Affairs, where he works on international financial development issues. He says his strengths are organizing events and doing logistics, and he has played a key role in pulling together some major international meetings, including the 2002 G-7 summit.
As the new treasurer of Pride, Boissonneault brings invaluable experience to an organization facing serious financial woes. He sees Pride’s problems as a challenge to overcome and wants to help build a more sustainable future.
“Pride brings so many groups together. If we could really work together and harness all that energy and work as a truly cohesive community, we could do so much,” he says. “This is a pretty special city and we’re a special group within the city and I would love to see that really blossom at some point.”
Boissonneault’s first foray into volunteer work was with the Public Service Pride Network. He saw a notice at work about starting a gay and lesbian group and decided to join in. Doug Janoff, whom Boissonneault credits with getting the network going, gave him the job of “keeper of the list.” Things just snowballed from there. Boissonneault has become the group’s primary organizer for social and networking events. The monthly pub night he plans is now the talk of the town. He’s been amazed at the success of the PSPN.
“I’ve seen it grow from a lunch of 20 people to a point now where our challenge is finding venues big enough to hold events,” he says. “We had a pub night in January at Club Soda and it was just swamped. So managing our success is the problem we’re having.”
For Boissonneault, the PSPN has the potential to become a nation-wide organization. He hopes that more events will become accessible to the public servants who send him encouraging e-mails from remote locations across Canada. Even within the Ottawa region, he sees reaching the queer populations less involved in other community activities as an important goal.
“A nice thing about it is that a lot of the people who come to our events, it’s an age range from 20s and right on up, and a lot of people who are not necessarily going to the bars anymore. A lot of people are maybe getting to come out that don’t normally do that kind of thing.”
His own personal search for connection with others is part of what drove Boissonneault to start volunteering. It was insecurity about where he would fit in that had kept him on the margins of the community until then.
“I guess I’ve always had a hard time figuring out where my place is in the gay world and that’s been sort of a struggle that I’ve had right since I came out,” he says. “I think it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve had enough confidence and found my niche. I’ve really embraced it because I think volunteering is really rewarding, and for me it facilitates me becoming part of the community and overcoming my innate shyness.”
Boissonneault also says, with a smile, that volunteering was an outlet for the frustration of being single. After almost two years on the volunteer circuit he’s still single, but that’s probably because he has no time for dating given all his commitments. Most importantly, he’s much happier now, and so he encourages others to make the same jump he did and join in.
“I certainly would say that I wish I’d done it sooner. With so many people you hear this constant refrain: ‘It’s so hard to meet people. Where are all the nice people?’ It’s just getting involved at any level, it opens so many doors and exposes you to really fantastic people.”