From Pride flotillas in the 1,000 Islands to celebrations in a Manitoba mining town, small communities in Canada — once considered bastions of conservatism — are beginning to promote themselves as gay-friendly destinations.
In that sense, Brockville is slightly ahead of the curve. From July 13 to 19 the St Lawrence town will be celebrating Pride, something it has done for the past four years. Beginning with a week of festivities and ending with a parade, the festival focuses on youth and families and gets local businesses involved.
The festival began as a way of creating something positive from a tragic situation. When a queer Brockville youth committed suicide, organizers, including media director Rhiannon Champagne and chair Brandon Timmerman, came together to show the community that Brockville could do better.
“We just decided that this wasn’t acceptable anymore,” Champagne says. “[We] worked with the town and created this beautiful thing, and now it’s annual.” While Champagne says that the organizers initially met with some resistance from the town, once the first event took place successfully and was well received by the community, the municipality got on board. “Once it was up and running and the town saw how much support and feedback Brockville was giving our little cause, they were really into it.”
She says that in some ways small-town Pride events are even more important than those in big cities, because they reach the people who may need them most. “Some of the most vulnerable people live in small towns, and sometimes they just can’t get the voice and the support that they need because there are no outlets.” Bigger cities are more likely to have resources for LGBT people, she says, so it’s important for towns like Brockville to make their support for the community visible.
Given its beginnings, involving Brockville youth in Pride is a priority for the organizers. “The turnout for youth for Brockville Pride is spectacular,” Champagne says, adding that the town also has a number of programs aimed at LGBT youth, including drop-ins in high schools and youth centres and programming through the local library.
The Pride festival itself is almost entirely youth-led, with committees handling such tasks as sponsorship and volunteer coordination and a core branch of adults dealing with the legal aspects. Organizers meet all year, typically starting right after the previous year’s event has ended. Funding comes from the City of Brockville, as well as from charity events and fundraisers like dances and yard sales; many local businesses donate items to be raffled off.
“The amount of support that all of the businesses in Brockville are giving Brockville Pride throughout this is just amazing,” Champagne says. “I think businesses just understand that, you know, everybody is a person and people shop and buy things, so you might as well not alienate yourself and accept the fact that we are here and we’re here to stay.”
Pride in Brockville is not just a beacon of hope; it’s also become a tourist draw for the town, attracting visitors from as far away as Dubai, Champagne says. “Every single year we’re getting more and more people by the hundreds, and we’re expecting double this year.” This year the town expects between 1,800 and 2,500 visitors for Pride, she says.
The major event of Brockville Pride is, of course, the parade, which takes place Saturday, July 19. But the town also has activities planned for the week prior, and many local businesses are involved. Activities include a church service, an AIDS memorial, glow-in-the-dark bowling, and a family-friendly bouncy castle. After the parade, the festivities wrap up with a party at local restaurant and nightclub Bud’s on the Bay.
The Pride festival has become very popular with LGBT families, Champagne says, giving them a chance to show their pride and be more visible. “I remember last year, we were noticing a lot more families were walking in the parade, even with their pets, and there [were] a lot more LGBT couples with their children in their strollers,” she says. “I know that’s definitely big in Brockville now.”
By holding Pride festivals, Champagne says, small towns like Brockville demonstrate that they are good places to live for members of the LGBT community. “It’s one thing to go to a big city to celebrate a Pride,” she says, “but it’s also one thing to be able to come back home to where you live and also have that acceptance where you live.”