A capacity crowd filled Nathan Phillips Square in front of city hall June 20 for the official WorldPride Toronto kickoff party, capped by an evening of live performances by Deborah Cox, Steve Grand and Melissa Etheridge.
It was a first for Pride Toronto, which typically kicks off Pride Week with a more subdued daytime flag-raising ceremony at city hall but went bigger this year to welcome the world.
An estimated 25,000 spectators filled the square, where comedian Deb Pearce emceed a lineup that included a speech from recently reelected Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and performances by British musician Tom Robinson, gay country YouTube sensation Steve Grand, local dance-chart topper Deborah Cox and lesbian rock legend Melissa Etheridge.
The ceremony began with a traditional First Nations prayer and recognition of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, on whose traditional territory Toronto sits.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam recounted the city’s long history of being on the leading edge of queer rights before delivering the official Pride proclamation from the city to the Pride Toronto board chairs. Wong-Tam praised the other city councillors who showed up for the ceremony, then took a swipe at Mayor Rob Ford, who was not invited.
“Toronto is more than the actions of one man. We are Toronto,” Wong-Tam said.
While Ford is scheduled to remain in rehab until after WorldPride is over, his four main rivals in the upcoming municipal election — Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz and David Soknacki — were at the launch party.
Kathleen Wynne got huge cheers from the crowd as she came out onstage with her partner, Jane Rounthwaite.
“We just thought we’d get it over with and be elected as the premier and first lady of Ontario in time for WorldPride,” Wynne said. “As your premier, I will work every day to make Ontario the safest, the most inclusive place, so that we can be that beacon for the world. You are all part of that.”
Tom Robinson kicked off the performances with a stripped-down version of his 1978 gay anthem “Glad to Be Gay,” which criticizes police brutality and government censorship against gay people.
Steve Grand told the crowd he was excited to be at WorldPride, on his first trip outside the United States, before playing a trio of his original songs and the Elton John classic “Benny and the Jets.” When he closed his performance with his smash YouTube hit “All-American Boy,” he changed the lyrics to “All-Canadian Boy” as a thanks to the audience.
Melissa Etheridge brought down the house with a rocking performance that climaxed with a surprise duet with Serena Ryder on Etheridge’s 1988 hit single “Bring Me Some Water.”
When all the performances were over, a dazzling fireworks display scored to a mix of gay anthems, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “True Colors” and “Defying Gravity,” closed out the night.
While the crowd ate up the celebration, the joy wasn’t universal. Next door, in front of Old City Hall, a small but loud group of a half-dozen demonstrators barked biblical passages at revellers as they left the square, demonstrating the continued need for Pride celebrations in Toronto.
The protesters did not appear to win any converts.