It was the summer of 1993. Pink Triangle Press, owner of Xtra in Toronto, was planning to expand to Vancouver to launch a new community newspaper, Xtra West, when a new opportunity arose.
“News arrived that GO Info had basically collapsed,” PTP president and executive director Ken Popert recalls. He saw a potential vacuum that PTP could fill.
“We never felt that GO Info actually provided journalism per se to the Ottawa community. It started out as a newsletter of Gays of Ottawa, and it never really escaped that colouration.”
Popert’s other motive for moving into the Ottawa market had to do with its role as the nation’s capital.
“When cabinet ministers and Supreme Court judges get out of their cars to walk across the sidewalks to their buildings in their mornings, I sometimes want the stuff that gets caught on their shoes to be pages of Capital Xtra,” Popert says. “I want to see that it’s a reality of life for them as well as for everyone else.”
Brandon Matheson, a journalist who had spent seven years working on Parliament Hill, was chosen to launch the project.
“I started working for Pink Triangle Press in the very first week of August in 1993,” Matheson says. “We spent the first month or so finding an office, hiring a staff, and putting together what would be the first issue of the paper. It was challenging to make that happen in that small amount of time, and back then, there was only really two of us on staff — me and George.”
George Hartsgrove — the other half of the nascent Capital Xtra operation — recalls getting involved almost on a whim, having suggested in passing to Matheson that he could do advertising sales.
“This was during the Rae Days,” says Hartsgrove, who was working at the University of Ottawa at the time. “They were looking for people to cut their hours, go half-time, take early retirement, so I went in and I proposed that I cut my hours back to half-time. That’s what I did and started working at Capital Xtra, selling advertising.”
Over its two previous decades, Pink Triangle Press had become accustomed to challenge and change. It published The Body Politic, Canada’s national gay new magazine, from 1971 to 1987. Xtra, which was launched in 1984, provided a lighter take on activism and focussed on local entertainment and event listings. The Xtra model proved more successful, and after a half decade of expansion in the Toronto market, the press set about extending its reach outside of the GTA.
Although Matheson and Hartsgrove were at the centre of the project, they weren’t alone. The early core of writers and photographers was largely made up with those with a journalism background — but also people who also had what Matheson felt was a good range of activism experience.
“They brought to the table very different politics, in some cases, and different views on what was happening in the community,” Matheson says.
Two opinion columnists, Irshad Manji and then-city councillor Alex Munter, took a broad look at issues around gay and lesbian liberation, politics and equality. David Pepper’s column Q Period looked at Parliament and federal news. Andrew Griffin wrote about culture in Art Fag and Don MacLean began a book column.
In September of 1993, Capital Xtra’s first issue rolled out.
In 1993, Ottawa was in a much different community than it is today. There was no internet or Facebook for networking or to get information on the queer community, and while GO Info was being distributed by Gays of Ottawa, it was by no means exhaustive.
“I think people were a lot more — maybe not secretive, but certainly fairly low-key during those times,” George Hartsgrove says. “There weren’t too many groups and organizations that existed, and people tended to stay to themselves, and there was not a lot going on.”
“In ’93, there was no federal human rights protection, obviously nothing to do with relationship recognition, even the hate crimes laws hadn’t been passed yet at that point,” Alex Munter recalls. He was the first openly-gay elected official in Ottawa, and one of a mere handful across the country. “The Charter of Rights didn’t yet include us in court rulings.”
Munter says that the past fifteen years have seen many changes in the Ottawa community — among them, the transition from “big little city” to “little big city.”
“There was probably more local activism then,” Munter says. “We had both GO Info and Capital Xtra for a short while. And in ’93, we were on the verge of a lot of things. In ’94, there was Bill 167 and the vast community mobilization in support of the bill to support same-sex relationships. We were on the verge of a lot of breakthroughs over the next 10 years, and it was the building phase.”
Capital Xtra provided space for a generation of emerging writers and photographers, says the paper’s first cover boy, David Rimmer, owner of After Stonewall bookstore. Rimmer has also been one of Capital Xtra’s longest-standing advertisers.
“Their interest in giving a home to new writers and new voices is laudable,” Rimmer says. “I think that Capital Xtra has been instrumental in bringing out some voices that have not been heard, and that deserve to be heard.”
One issue that has not changed for the community in fifteen years is the tendency for many Ottawa queers to dash off to Toronto or Montreal for their weekend entertainment.
“We’ve often been somewhat frustrated at the difficulty of helping the community there to grow, and Ottawa is handicapped by the all-too tangible presence of Montreal,” PTP’s Popert says. “It’s only an hour away, and I think it allows people there to take a short-cut to participating in a gay community without necessarily building one in their own backyard, as it were.”
Indeed, the attempts to create a gay village have been around in various stages since the paper’s inception.
“The single biggest wish that we really feel that we haven’t been able to fulfil there is to have a full-fledged gay community develop in the way that it exists in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver,” Popert adds. “And the size of the city is not sufficient explanation.”
Capital Xtra was noticed immediately. Gays turned to it as a very public iteration of their lives. Straight people noticed it too, Munter recalls, and his column was used against him during the 1994 municipal elections.
“Capital Xtra was a lot less racy than it is today, and yet it was shocking to be read out in a suburban school gym,” Munter recalls. “That was the tactic — to show up at an all-candidate’s meeting in a suburban school gym and start selectively reading various lines out of the back pages of the newspaper.”
Despite calls for him to retire his column, Munter resisted — even though he no longer had the time to write it — until he decided to end it on his own terms.
Within the queer community, Capital Xtra has proved to be a viable operation, and it has seen Ottawa through one of the most exciting periods in queer history.
“I think Capital Xtra has been a good shit disturber, and has been instrumental in raising issues about community, about sexuality and about portrayal of community and sexuality that may not have been otherwise raised,” Rimmer says.