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Pride goes north

Thompson, Manitoba hosts first-ever Pride celebration

The city of Thompson, Manitoba, is holding its first ever Pride celebration on June 28. Credit: Thinkstock

When we think of Pride festivals, we tend to think of huge parades that shut down the streets and revellers dancing into the wee hours at nightclubs. In short, we think of big cities. With well over a million visitors expected to descend on Toronto for WorldPride in just a few days, it’s safe to say that big-city Prides command a lot of attention.

But while the cities bring oomph and plenty of glitter, small-town Prides tend to focus on heart. And while major urban centres are seen as the bastions of gay life, the LGBT community exists everywhere. Now more than ever, smaller communities are embracing their queer populations.

Located in the centre of Manitoba and known as the Hub of the North, Thompson is a small community of about 13,000 people. It was formed in the late 1950s after the discovery of a major nickel ore deposit attracted a mining company to the area. It’s almost the last place you would expect to find a Pride festival. But on June 28, Thompsonites will fly the rainbow flag as they gather for the town’s very first Pride celebration, Pride North of 55.

Organizers Michelle Smook and Harlie Pruder got the idea to hold Pride after Pruder started a feminist group in Thompson. Realizing they had similar interests and encouraged by a friend who had joined the organizing team of Pride Winnipeg, the two decided to gather a group of volunteers and see if there was an interest.

“When we first started, we thought we were just going to have a barbecue, you know — 10 people get together,” Smook says. That barbecue quickly became a mini-festival, and a team of seven volunteers planned a full day of festivities, beginning with a flag-raising ceremony presided over by Mayor Tim Johnston. The day will also include a vendor fair, musical and dance performances, and an evening dance party held in the town’s St Lawrence Hall.

Part of the organizers’ goal in holding Pride was to create a point of contact for northern LGBT communities and reiterate the need for services for those groups. “Northern Manitoba, Thompson in particular, is the Hub of the North, so all of the communities that surround us draw on this place for services of any sort,” Smook says.  

She explains that currently there are no specific services in Thompson for LGBT-identified people. “Healthcare, you know, it’s whatever the doctors, nurses, healthcare practitioners that you’re dealing with learned while they were in school. There’s no specific programming available.”

Part of her hope is that Pride North of 55 will draw people out and show that there is a need for LGBT-specific services in Northern Manitoba. “There’s strength in numbers. If we’re hoping to have resources allocated to our community, we’re in a better position if more than just us have those needs.”

It’s difficult to say for certain just how big the LGBT community is in Northern Manitoba, Smook says. Gay men in particular tend not to be very visible, and she speculates that many are remaining closeted. “We had challenges in the beginning seeking those people out, and one of the common things that happens is we lose our community members to urban centres or moving south because we just don’t have those services available here . . . Staying closeted for a long time when you grow up in a place like this is a pretty big deal.”

She describes the environment in Thompson as being somewhat macho and patriarchal, as can often be the case with mining communities. “That can sometimes create an environment that’s less open to different ways of life or different kinds of love,” she says.

“I think, too, that those people who put on that guise . . . of the macho stereotypical man and stuff — a lot of them are just waiting for somebody to kind of ask them truly what’s in their heart because a lot of them are struggling with the same issues that we’re struggling with,” Pruder adds.  

While it would be easy to assume that this kind of culture would make organizing something like a Pride festival all but impossible, Pruder says that most of the reaction has been positive and that those who are less enthusiastic are more baffled than openly hostile. The challenge has been more in getting members of the LGBT community involved.

“A lot of my friends who do identify, say, as gay or lesbian, it’s been almost difficult to try and get them involved, and it’s been almost a sense of — they’re quite happy and they feel very supported, and they’re good with where they’re at,” Pruder says. “So I almost feel like we need to remind those people that just because you’re good with where you’re at . . . doesn’t mean that the rest of the north is.”

To fund the event, the group secured partnerships and in-kind donations from many of the town’s businesses and local unions, as well as from the office of local MP Niki Ashton. Pride North of 55 has also received sponsorship from the Keewatin Tribal Council and assistance from the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

With a large northern aboriginal population, Smook says it was important to involve those groups. “We’re not like Toronto; we don’t have LGBTTQI and then a hundred other letters, but we are out. We have defined ourselves as a group with LGBTTQ interest, so we have [reached out to] the two-spirit groups,” she says.

As far as continuing to have Pride in Thompson, both Pruder and Smook are hopeful that the event will be a recurring one. “I know for sure that we’ll be doing it again next year,” Smook says. “That was the point — to create something that’s sustainable and ongoing. The only way that we’ll ever see the resources that we’re looking for up here is if we keep it moving.”

“One of our goals for this next coming year is to expand on the educational aspect of it and making sure that services are available,” Pruder adds.

“Ultimately, if you think about families and friends and that sort of thing, everybody knows somebody who belongs to the LGBT community,” Smook says. “Whether you want to or not, we’re all connected.”