Travel
4 min

Pride in the slow lane

Gananoque event features small-town charm and a Pride flotilla

The longest day of the year is nearly here, and so is Toronto WorldPride. But if the idea of pounding the pavement all day in the baking sun or navigating streets congested with revellers isn’t your cup of tea, there is an alternative that’s more relaxing but just as fabulous. Gananoque’s Summer Solstice: Pride in the 1,000 Islands festival is back, offering a laid-back approach to Pride celebrations set against the picturesque beauty of the St Lawrence River waterfront.

Now in its third year, the festival takes place from June 20 to 22 in Gananoque. It began in 2012 when organizers received a $40,000 grant from the Celebrate Ontario program to create a destination Pride event in the 1,000 Islands and features a Pride flotilla parade with rainbow-bedecked boats making their way up the St Lawrence in style.

The seeds for the festival were sown when Kathrine Christensen, executive director of the 1,000 Islands Accommodation Partners, sat down for lunch with Justin Lafontaine of Travel Gay Canada. They realized that although the idea hadn’t yet been explored, Gananoque and the 1,000 Islands had the potential to be a successful gay tourist destination.

“Everything happened so quickly it was unbelievable,” Christensen says. She and Lafontaine signed up for an assessment of the community and gathered together volunteers to stage the region’s first ever Pride event. “Everything happened in 12 months. We went from having lunch on an afternoon in June to standing on the stage . . . of the first Pride event in the 1,000 Islands exactly a year later.”

Going strong ever since, the festival strikes a balance between family-focused events and adults-only fun while showcasing the best of what small-town Prides have to offer. Taking advantage of the St Lawrence waterway, the weekend kicks off with a Rocky Horror Picture Show boat cruise on Friday night, followed by an adults-only drag cruise on Saturday. The most unique aspect of 1,000 Islands Pride is, of course, the flotilla parade, which takes place on Saturday morning and is led by the Gananoque Boat Line.

“They decorate a big boat up, and anybody who doesn’t have a boat who’s here visiting or wants to just come down for the weekend, they can still get involved,” Christensen says. “It’s pretty damn cool . . . There’s many things you can do many places. What you can’t do is you cannot do a Pride flotilla through the 1,000 Islands anywhere else but here.”

For organizer Dennis O’Connor, 1,000 Islands Pride is a very different but no less meaningful experience. A former Toronto resident, O’Connor was actively involved in the big-city scene, running a commercial art gallery and chairing the Church Wellesley Village BIA. For the last five years, he’s led a quieter life in Gananoque.

“I’m quite well connected with Toronto, and I was very active there,” he says. It took him some time to adjust to the slower pace of life in Gananoque, and for the first two years of the Pride festival he chose not to get involved, feeling the region’s LGBT community was too quiet and reserved for a Pride festival. “Being an old fart, it was really difficult for me to manoeuvre this,” he says with a chuckle.

But a chance encounter with local gay youth changed his mind. O’Connor describes sitting on his front porch and seeing a pair of local boys walk by hand in hand. “I cannot tell you how that really hit me emotionally,” he says. “I felt amazing, and it was really what made me realize that whether I agreed with the type of event they were putting on . . . how important it was to do in a small town.”

O’Connor is the organizing force behind the Saturday night free gala performance featuring Brandon the Hypnotist, drag queen Fay Slift and DJ Phil V. The OUTrageous! comedy hypnosis show and dance party will see audience volunteers leave their inhibitions behind as they are led through a series of personality changes and imaginary situations created by Brandon, who trained in Las Vegas in the art of hypnosis. DJ Phil V, a YouTube dancing sensation, will set the mood for the accompanying dance party. (Full disclosure: Brandon Matheson is publisher and editor-in-chief of the three Xtra papers, and Phil Villeneuve is the Toronto arts editor.)

Held in the town’s historic Firehall Theatre, the show provides an adults-only party atmosphere with free Pride cocktails, a midnight buffet and plenty of glitter. “I wanted the event to be totally gay and in-your-face and lots of fun. It had to be lots of fun,” O’Connor says. “The evening is meant to be purely joyful and fun and exciting, and really you could actually go to the event and not spend a dime.”

For those who like a little culture with their glitter, the Thousand Island Playhouse will be presenting a staged reading of Bed and Breakfast, by Canadian playwright Mark Crawford. The play centres on a gay couple who inherit a family home in a sleepy tourist town. “I gotta tell ya, it’s art imitating life,” Christensen says, laughing.  

For families and youth, PFLAG will host a Rainbow Family Fun Day at Town Hall Park on Sunday afternoon, featuring live music, face painting, crafts and puppet shows. Despite being a community of only 5,000, Christensen says the people of Gananoque are a proud and progressive bunch. “People are very open to new ideas.”

“It’s just charming — I think charming is the word,” O’Connor says of the festival. “Charming and real . . . it’s a quieter lifestyle.”

“We’ve got enough culture and enough interest in that way to really make a lovely weekend,” Christensen adds. “People don’t understand what a little gem it actually is.”