More than 100 people tap their feet and clap their hands to live Celtic music. A nice lady sells homemade fudge and a few more locals watch over a basket as it fills with donations.
They’re here at the Little Pond Community Centre, about 65 km northeast of Charlottetown, PEI, to raise money and show support for Bill and Lou, a gay couple who were burned out of their home after a firebomb crashed through one of their windows in the early morning hours of Oct 18. The couple were asleep in their bed, but as the flames spread, Bill pulled Lou out of the house, through the mud to safety.
Maureen Campbell-Hanley organized the fundraising event. The community centre sits minutes away from the mangled, blackened remains of the house.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of something so vile happening on the island,” she says.
Tonight is for Bill and Lou, but they’re not here. Campbell-Hanley says they would have loved to have seen the community support, but they are still so “overwhelmed.” They opted to send a statement thanking the concert goers, who came out despite stormy conditions and icy roads.
A long-time friend of the couple, Loretta Campbell (Campbell-Hanley’s sister), tells me Bill and Lou were “torn, upset and scared” about attending tonight. But she pulls out her phone, dials and asks Bill if he will speak with me.
Bill, who prefers that Xtra publish only their first names, says whoever attacked his home did it because they hate homosexuals. He knows this because this isn’t the first time they’ve been targeted. Previously, someone burned their roadside mailbox – a makeshift replacement now lies in the snow in front of the charred ruins of their home – and before that they received a religious-themed note condemning their sexuality. Then came the firebombing.
“We’re at the bottom,” he says of how he and Lou are coping. “It was our sanctuary.”
This attack has left them living in fear, says Bill.
“They know what I look like,” he explains. “They know who we are, but we have no clue who they are. We are in constant awareness of our surroundings.”
For all they know, their attacker could be one, or more, of their neighbours. Still, they would like to think that’s not the case. It’s because of that fear, that concern for their safety, that Bill and Lou have avoided speaking to the press and want to keep their last names off the record.
They’ve already started over twice before, says Bill, so having their pictures “plastered across Canada” could keep them from finding peace.
Because this recent disaster was an attack, not an accident, Bill says he “can’t tell [his] partner he’s safe.”
He worries about Lou’s ability to defend himself, with someone so intent on hurting them. Lou has a physical disability and is also fighting cancer. “I have to protect my family,” Bill asserts.
It’s clear their story is more complex than the mainstream media has been able to report without speaking to the couple, but Campbell-Hanley says she feels the press could have covered the story more deeply.
“It was very lightly covered and very ineffectively covered,” she says, adding she is surprised by the lack of gay community support in the local media following the fire. “The silence was deafening.”
There is also too much silence from the police, says Jeff Fitzgerald, an executive member of the Abegweit Rainbow Collective (ARCPEI).
“If it’s a crime against the gay community, it’s not taken seriously at first,” he says. “The police forces on the island have this public campaign going about ‘We’re putting these investigations online… call in with tips.’ But with this investigation, it’s silence.
“It doesn’t send a good message to the gay community… when the people who are investigating this crime are not coming forward and saying ‘We do have a lead/we don’t have a lead.’”
The RCMP is investigating the fire as arson, but Sgt Denis Morin says there are no plans to consider it a hate crime. Finding the person who set the house on fire is the first priority.
Bill hopes silence from the police means they are working hard on the case, but despite the small size of Little Pond nobody has heard rumours or tips.
In the meantime, it’s not just the Little Pond Community Centre contingent who are rallying behind Bill and Lou. A crowd came together on Saturday, Nov 20 in Charlottetown for a hug-in around the cenotaph. Then again, on Monday, Nov 22, a public forum was held on safety for the queer community.