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Okanagan Pride grows bigger and partners with wineries

Soon the festivities will need larger venues, president says

Kelowna mayor Walter Gray gets a kiss from Wilbur Turner (in drag) in 2012 after issuing the proclamation he rejected in 1997. Credit: Nick Schafer

After record attendance in 2012, the Okanagan Pride Society hopes this year’s festival will establish Kelowna as a destination for gay wine connoisseurs and their friends.

The Pride festival, now in its seventh year, kicks off Aug 11 with a music-themed spiritual event followed by a golf tournament, a transgender day, a drag competition, a festival in a local park, a beer garden and a wine tasting event called Viva Las Pride. 

“We’re partnering with Okanagan Wine Festivals for what they call a signature event and it’s probably going to be one of the most popular events of Pride,” says Okanagan Pride Society president Wilbur Turner. 

“They’ve been a non-profit for years and they have a fall and spring wine festival sponsored by WestJet and it’s a big deal. We just signed a partnership agreement with them for 12 months and this is our first event. It’s called Viva Las Pride because it’s got a Vegas theme to it. There will be play gaming and prizes and entertainment and of course as many participating wineries as we can fit into the venue.”

Turner says 20 Okanagan wineries have signed on to the event, which takes place in a restored packing house located in Kelowna’s Cultural District.

“There could have been more wineries but we had to limit it to 20 because we ran out of space in the venue,” he says. “The general manager of the Okanagan Wine Festival said that Viva Las Pride was the fastest event that has ever filled up with wineries.”

Turner hopes this year’s event will improve upon last year’s festivities which, he says, attracted a record number of 1,600-1,700 attendees. He also says that it was supported by approximately 120 businesses and community organizations, as well as a returning mayor who finally came out to celebrate with the queers.

Walter Gray, who was mayor of Kelowna from 1996 until 2005, refused to issue a proclamation for Gay and Lesbian Pride Day in 1997. The BC Human Rights Tribunal told Gray that he could sign all proclamations or none, and he opted for the latter rather than endorsing something gay. 

Proclamations resumed during the tenure of Sharon Shepherd and continued with Gray after he was re-elected in 2011. Last year, Gray attended Kelowna Pride and finally issued a proclamation similar to the one he refused to sign 15 years earlier. 

“I don’t plan to impose myself on the event organizer but I will respond favourably if I am invited, providing they don’t leave it too late,” Gray says, when asked if he plans to return to Pride this year. 

“I enjoyed my involvement last year due to the fact that it was an invitation to the entire community and it was one of diversity, it was fun and in good taste,” he adds. 

Turner confirms that Gray and other politicians, including Premier Christy Clark who just won a seat in the legislature in the Westside-Kelowna by-election, have been sent invitations.

Gray's secretary, Jan Johnston, tells Xtra July 24 that the mayor has accepted Okanagan Pride's invitation and plans to "read the proclamation and give a short speech to welcome the participants" on Sat, Aug 17.

Okanagan Pride will also feature headline performances by drag star Willam and gay American singer-songwriter Chris Salvatore, who makes his Canadian debut at the festival.

“I know that it’s a smaller town and I’m kind of glad that my first time in Canada is going to be in a smaller town because I don’t think many people that I know can say ‘I’ve been to the Okanagan.’ It’s special to me,” says Salvatore, who says he especially enjoys connecting with his audiences at smaller Pride events. 

“When I perform at these Pride events, especially the ones that aren’t in New York or LA, people get super excited and I love that. What I hope for in the near future is to perform at more of these events. I haven’t done very many and I’m very grateful to be asked.”

Turner notes that other events, including the Pride dance, are at capacity and he is already looking ahead for a larger venue.

“Next year we have a dilemma,” he says. “We want to bring in a headliner and we have people coming from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, local people and the US, but we’ve run out of venues that can hold us. I’m trying to see if we can do it at Prospera Place where they do hockey games and concerts. That’s the only place that’s central and big enough.”