3 min

Educating ourselves and others

National queer health conference comes to Gatineau

It’s no secret that homophobia has a drastic impact on the lives of Canada’s queers – and on health and wellness in particular.

According to Gens Hellquist, executive director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition (CRHC), studies indicate that the rates of suicide, substance abuse and mental health problems are at least three times higher in the GLBT population than the general population.

HIV/AIDS, smoking, school dropout and unemployment are also serious issues within the queer community.

“Studies indicate that as many as 5,500 GLBT Canadians die prematurely each year in Canada because of the impact of homophobia,” Hellquist says. “This is not acceptable in Canada in the year 2004.”

To address the issues of health, wellness and access to care for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, the CRHC will hold the first nationally focussed forum designed to build partnerships between primary health care practitioners and institutions, and GLBT communities in November.

The conference, Rainbow Health 2004 – Improving Access To Care – Many Faces/Diverse Voices, will take place at the Holiday Inn Plaza La Chaudière in Gatineau from Nov 4 to 7.

The Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition – formed at a gay and lesbian health services conference in Saskatoon in 2001 – is a collection of groups and individuals from across the country interested in addressing health and wellness issues for GLBT people.

The CRHC recently received funding from the Primary Health Care Transition Fund of Health Canada to undertake a national initiative that addresses the problems GLBT people confront in accessing quality care from Canada’s health-care system.

Hellquist says next month’s conference is an important part of that initiative.

“The whole area of queer health is an area that is underlooked. And if you look at the situation it’s really rather appalling,” he says. “I mean, our health-care system doesn’t deal with our problems effectively – if they deal with them at all. So we want to bring people together to talk about the issue and talk about ways we can turn this around.”

So far, organizers have more than 50 workshops scheduled and are expecting more than 300 participants to attend the multi-day event in Gatineau.

Included in the conference’s workshop schedule is a presentation regarding the Wellness Project, the benchmark survey of Ottawa’s queer community conducted in 2001.

The workshop will be led by Bruce Bursey, past president of Pink Triangle Services and a member of the Wellness Project Committee, and Anne Wright, a primary consultant on the project and co-author of the survey’s final report.

According to Bursey, the overview will focus on the motivation behind the study, the challenges faced during the community-led process, its key findings and how these findings have been translated into positive community action.

“One of the things that I want to help people appreciate is how we actually did it, and not just talk about the results, but how do you go about doing something like this,” Bursey says. “Because one of our goals is that other cities will do a similar kind of assessment in their communities. Because this is not something that has been done across Canada – yet.”

Hellquist agrees.

“I think that it is important for us to talk about the initiatives that have happened in the country and certainly I think that the Wellness Project out of Ottawa was an important project,” Hellquist says. “We have a tendency to organize relations in our communities and not have the opportunities to share that information that we’ve each learned. And, certainly, I think that some of the stuff that has come out of that project is important for other people to know.”

In addition to access to quality care issues, Hellquist says another important aspect of the conference will be to highlight the diversity of the queer community, particularly in relation to health and wellness.

He adds that all too often, when the current health care system thinks of queer health issues, they tend to focus on HIV/AIDS and white gay men.

“And the reality is that more people in our community die prematurely each year from suicide, smoking and substance abuse than from AIDS,” Hellquist says.

In addition to preparing for next month’s conference, the CRHC has also been hard at work creating and updating its new website. Launched in July, Hellquist says his organization intends the site to be a much-needed online health information resource center – both for members of the queer community and heath care providers.

In the meantime, Barry Deeprose, CRHC founding board member and chair of Ottawa’s Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, says he is hopeful delegates will leave November’s conference more educated and motivated to improve the quality of care received by Canada’s queer community.

“It looks like it’s going to be a rich conference,” he says. “But we have a long way to go educating ourselves and educating others. We’ve got to get organized.”

For updated conference information or to register online visit the CRHC’s website at