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Pride Toronto critics get ‘run-around’ on membership status

Anti-censorship activists won't have voting rights at AGM

UPDATE, SEPT 23, 2:30PM: Within hours of this story being posted, Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands tweeted that Leonardo Zuniga has been granted membership status. An email to Elle Flanders from volunteer program manager Emily Gibson sent at 1:30pm confirms Flanders has been added to the membership list as well.

In the lead-up to Pride, Jane Farrow organized a walking tour of historic gay sites in the city. With journalist Gerald Hannon, she rejigged a tour she’d given before, adding more political content and introducing another tour guide.

She liaised with Pride Toronto (PT) staff, prepared for and promoted the event.

So she was surprised to learn that the experience only counted for two volunteer hours — the two hours when she was actually on the tour. Staff offered to record an extra hour if she wrote them a marketing blurb about her time as a volunteer.

“I told them, ‘Look, you’re nickel-and-diming me. That’s outrageous,’” says Farrow. “There was an attitude of devaluing the contribution; it was sort of a fight.”

Eight is the magic number. PT’s bylaws award membership status to volunteers who have put in eight hours. And membership has its benefits, including a vote at today’s AGM.

Farrow had to bring in a second staff member to get the matter resolved. Eventually, she was told by email that her contribution — eight or more hours — would be recorded. Even so, she says she’ll be bringing a printout of that email exchange to the AGM, in case her name doesn’t appear on the membership list. 

Others haven’t been so lucky.

Elle Flanders and Leonardo Zuniga volunteered with PT’s human rights committee. Shortly before Pride, the wheels came off their events — after PT banned the term “Israeli apartheid,” the international grand marshals and other panellists declined to come to Toronto.

Although both Zuniga and Flanders attended human rights committee meetings, both now believe that their volunteer hours haven’t netted them a membership.

“I don’t know if that was a cause for why they didn’t accept my hours,” says Zuniga. “It was our time; we working for a Pride Toronto committee. It wasn’t our fault that the events were cancelled.”

After the human rights events were shelved, both Flanders and Zuniga tried to volunteer through the PT website. Neither were contacted, raising questions, Flanders says, about “who was allowed to volunteer.”

All three have been vocal opponents of the censorship decision, but volunteered nonetheless. The three were members of the so-called Refusniks, queers who returned past PT honours to protest the censorship policy.

Kim Koyama of the Pride Coalition for Free Speech says they’re not the only ones who are having trouble getting their volunteer hours counted.

“People are having to fight and prove their hours,” he says. “In most cases, organizations err on the side of generosity. They might say, ‘Oh, it’s not recorded properly, but I remember you were there.’ It doesn’t seem to create good relationships within the community, putting the onus on volunteers to prove their contribution.”

He says he’s also heard reports of “glitches” in the tracking system PT staff used during the weekend. Koyama adds that the problems may be chronic, rather than unique to this year.

Rachel Epstein, a long-time activist and a member of the satirical Lesbian Billionaires for Censorship, says she “just assumed” she was a member.

After all, she sits on the Family Pride committee, which plans activities at the school over Pride weekend. She also worked at the Family Pride area during Pride weekend.

But when she asked, she was told that, as a staffer at the Sherbourne Health Centre, she was paid for her work.

“What they’re saying is that the work I do wasn’t as a volunteer,” says Epstein.

Epstein admits that it’s a “blurry” distinction, but she wonders why PT would treat its community partners in that way.

Most of those we spoke to were not willing to draw links between their anti-censorship activism and the trouble they’ve had becoming members of PT.

“I can’t say for sure, but it certainly felt like I was getting the run-around,” says Farrow. “If that’s how you treat everyone — well, it’s just really bad personnel policy all around.”