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New Westminster Pride celebrates with Russian refugee

‘I’m just so impressed to see how open-minded Canadians are’: Samstov

The Hills and Heels walk up New Westminster’s 6th Avenue to city hall. Credit: Audrey McKinnon

Russian refugee Andrey Samstov walked the Russian flag up New Westminster’s steep 6th Avenue Aug 17 to celebrate the Vancouver suburb’s fourth annual Pride.

About 150 people joined him, waving rainbow flags, wearing elaborate costumes and carrying signs protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Samstov arrived in Canada last month, fearing he could face a year in jail in Russia after being arrested for waving a gay flag in a Moscow Pride parade in 2011.

On Saturday, New Westminster and BC government officials, a native elder and the local community welcomed him as co-grand marshal of the annual Hills and Heels walk from Columbia Street to city hall.

“It’s mind-blowing. I’m just so impressed to see how open-minded Canadians are and the rights that you have. In Moscow, in Russia, we don’t have those kinds of rights there. So it’s just so great to be welcomed into this environment,” Samstov, who is deaf, said through an interpreter.

New West Pride has been growing annually, says Ian Gould, vice-president of the Royal City Pride Society. “Every year we’re getting bigger and bigger. This year, there’s probably three times as many people down here on the street, and I’m forecasting next year, maybe we’ll have to close the street.

“We’ll just keep building and building,” he promised.

To Gould, Samstov’s presence offered an important reminder to stand proud for those in other parts of the world who aren’t allowed to outwardly celebrate their sexuality.

Cesar Torawholes, carrying the same #Putinmyass placard he carried in the Vancouver Pride parade two weeks earlier, says New West’s local Pride celebrations feel different than the Vancouver parade, which organizers say drew more than 600,000 spectators this year.

“The New West and Surrey one are more community-based,” says Torawholes, who lives in New West. “It’s not as big as the Vancouver one. The Vancouver one kind of seems to be very commercial and a lot grander. So here, it’s just a great way of kind of connecting with people one on one.”

Volunteer Brian Winger agrees. “Because we’re a small town, everybody knows somebody or is related to somebody,” he says. “It’s just a whole different feeling.”

For Lynn West, who moved to New West about a year ago, Pride is a chance to discover her new city.

“We actually saw it in the newspaper, so for sure came up in support and to see what was going on and then enjoy some of the fun and the diversity of New Westminster,” she said from her vantage point, near city hall on 6th Avenue.

She says she has always wanted to attend Vancouver Pride, so attending New West’s celebration gave her a glimpse of the festivities without the commute. “This is just outside our backdoor, so it was just easy to come and check it out.”

As Hills and Heels participants made it to the front steps of city hall, they were greeted by native elder Sandra Laframboise, who delivered a blessing.

“It warmed my queer heart to see all of you walking up the hill. It reminded me of 1971, the 28th of August in Ottawa. I marched. I was 12 years old with my placard, marching up Parliament Hill demanding for our rights. Can you imagine 40 years later what we’re doing? We’re gathering and celebrating each other,” Laframboise told the crowd.

Acting Mayor Jonathan Cote read the proclamation, declaring it Pride Day in New Westminster. He was joined by city councillors and NDP MLA Judy Darcy.

Amrik Virk, BC’s minister of advanced education, also addressed attendees on behalf of Premier Christy Clark, who was not in attendance.

“On behalf of the government of British Columbia, we walk with you, we respect you and Happy Pride Day,” Virk said.

Following the proclamation, the walkers were invited to the Pride Festival in Tipperary Park, where vendors and a stage awaited.