David Pepper’s idea of a sabbatical involves travelling across Canada on a Greyhound bus, couch surfing or staying in hostels and arranging meetings to talk about an issue that is dear to him but alien to many.
Since April 13, Pepper has clocked more than 10,000 kilometres on his North Star Triangle Project. His mission is complex but his message is simple: it takes a group of only five Canadians to sponsor a refugee to come to Canada.
Pepper has been involved with gay and lesbian issues for more than 20 years. For many years he has been concerned about refugee rights, especially for gay and lesbian people living in countries where the threat of persecution is real.
Five years ago, Pepper and four friends were in the process of sponsoring an Eritrean refugee to come to Canada. The sponsorship fell through, but the desire to help remained.
In June 2010, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said that private organizations — like gay and lesbian groups — needed to reach out and sponsor more refugees to Canada.
“It was somewhat coincidental that I was aware what Jason Kenney was talking about, and I didn’t necessarily accept his premise that the LGBT community was sitting on its laurels doing nothing,” says Pepper.
After Kenney’s statement, Pepper talked to an Ottawa law professor, Nicole LaViolette, who wrote an article in The Globe and Mail. In the article LaViolette said, “there has been an almost complete absence of interest in the resettlement programs that could actually allow LGBT groups or individuals to sponsor a queer refugee.”
After speaking with LaViolette, Pepper took the matter into his own hands. After much thought he teamed up with four other people and, once again, embarked on an application to sponsor a gay or lesbian refugee.
The process coincided with Pepper’s impending 10-month sabbatical from the Ottawa Police Service, where he is the director of community development. Pepper realized that the sabbatical would give him the luxury of time, which he could use to educate others.
“I had the idea that it would be an amazing opportunity to travel across Canada and share information and do public education to the LGBT community on the issue of group-of-five sponsorship as it pertains to LGBT refugees. As a result of that, I conceived of the North Star Triangle Project,” he says.
Before setting out on the tour, Pepper contacted five immigration groups — the Metropolitan Community Church and Iranian Queer Refugee Railroad, in Toronto; Rainbow Refugee, in Vancouver; and AGIR and Rainbow Railroad, in Montreal — to collect information, form networks and gather resources.
The North Star Triangle Project is based on a community development style. Pepper identified 20 target cities and contacted people he thought would be interested in the topic. They, in turn, organize the meetings and arrange for places for Pepper to stay.
The meetings vary in size, but they all have one common denominator — few attendees know about or understand the issue.
“Most of the people attending the meeting have never done anything with immigrants or refugees… so it’s news to them,” Pepper says.
He is precise in getting his message across. He talks about the project, Canada’s record of bringing refugees to the country, the different ways that refugees can come to Canada and how a group of five can sponsor a refugee.
He is happy with the response he has had, although he is cautious about outcomes.
“I would be concerned if anyone left the meeting and filled out a form without thinking about it. On the other hand, a lot of people leave with a desire to be more engaged in one way or another on the issue,” he says.
For Pepper the experience has been one of sharing and learning, and it’s been an emotional roller coaster.
“It has been intense when there are living people there [in the meetings] who are refugees. That is always challenging and troubling because they face such perils and obstacles in their struggle to remain in Canada, and those are the refugees who are here,” he says. “It doesn’t include the thousands of LGBT refugees who aren’t here, who will probably never make it here.”
One of his most intense moments came at the beginning of the tour, in Winnipeg.
“A gay man approached me after I made my speech at the Winnipeg Pride parade… who told me he had been in Canada for exactly one week and the next day was going to be putting in his refugee papers. He was from an African country — that was intense,” says Pepper.
Pepper started in Winnipeg because it is the geographical centre of Canada and has a history of immigration settlement. “More importantly,” he says, “it is a city that is changing and in 2013 will open the Museum for Human Rights, so I thought that was an important symbolic start to the journey.”
The tour will end in an equally symbolic city — Ottawa — where decisions and laws are made about refugees.
The North Star Project will roll to a stop at the end of July, with Pepper holding a meeting for the wider community. Although the tour will end Pepper has just begun his journey, one that is likely to guide him for many years to come.
“I think anyone who takes on any issues in this area, that, to be honest with you, more than likely becomes a lifetime of work,” he says.