In the summer of 2003, Jax Blue sent a letter to Peterborough City Hall with a request for then-mayor Sylvia Sutherland.
Blue, a Fleming College student at the time, wanted Sutherland to proclaim Peterborough’s first-ever LGBTQ+ Pride Day later that summer. But he didn’t have high hopes when he sent the request.
“I submitted it to city hall and I thought ‘OK, I guess we’ll gear up for a human rights fight,’” Blue said.
It had taken a complaint to Ontario’s Human Rights Commission to get the City of London, Ontario, to proclaim a Pride Day a few years earlier, in 1997. Blue had watched that play out and expected a similar battle in Peterborough. Instead he said he was shocked to get a call from the city a week later saying the mayor had agreed to his request.
Sutherland had already signed the Pride Day proclamation that Blue had submitted, and it was waiting for him at city hall.
“They called me and said ‘Your proclamation’s ready. Would you like us to mail it? Or would you like to pick it up?’” Blue said. He ran to city hall right away, he said.
The date was now set for Peterborough’s first official Pride Day, which took place 20 years ago this month, on September 13, 2003.
Blue was president of the Fleming Association of Queer Students (FAQS) then, and quickly brought the good news to the rest of the group.
“I was like, ‘You’re not gonna believe this. We got the proclamation. What do we do now?’” he said.
With only two months to plan, members of FAQS immediately started preparing to mark the historic day with a parade down George Street to Millennium Park. They posted flyers around the city to spread the word, and Elements Restaurant held a fundraiser to cover the $1,335 cost of having police patrol the parade and block off intersections along the route, Blue said.
Ex-mayor proud to have signed first Pride proclamation
When the Pride Day proclamation came across Sutherland’s desk, she had no hesitation in signing it, she said. But she said she knew she would face pushback for the decision from some in the city. She put her signature to the proclamation minutes before leaving for vacation in New Brunswick that summer, she said. As she walked out the door, she handed the proclamation to her assistant, Doris Neufeld, and warned her that it might cause a stir.
“I said ‘Doris, you may hear about this,’ and left,” she said.
As Sutherland drove home from New Brunswick a week later, her Blackberry started pinging. There was “a whole pile” of emails in her inbox from people opposed to the proclamation, she said.
She said a couple of councillors also objected to her decision. A few weeks later, three people showed up to a city council meeting to speak out against the proclamation, according to a Peterborough Examiner article from the time. Some residents also wrote homophobic letters to the editor of the Examiner in the lead up to Pride Day, the newspaper’s archives show. But ultimately the backlash was not very widespread, according to Sutherland.
Although she did not attend the parade because of a prior commitment, she did go to a Pride picnic at Inverlea Park the next day, according to an Examiner article from the time.
She remembered encountering an “older gentleman” there who was “fairly well known in town.” The man came up to her “practically with tears in his eyes” and said how glad he was that she had officially recognized Pride Day, “because I think he had been in the closet all these years, quite frankly,” she said.
Sutherland, who has a daughter who is gay, said she is proud that it was her signature at the bottom of that first Pride Day proclamation.
“I was happy to sign it, but I had little option in a way,” she said. If she had refused to proclaim Pride Day, she could have been fined by the Human Rights Commission, as London’s mayor was, she said.
“People never thought they’d see it happen in Peterborough”
When the day of the parade finally came, Blue couldn’t believe the turnout. An estimated 300 people marched through downtown after then-MP Peter Adams read the Pride Day proclamation on the front steps of city hall in Sutherland’s absence.
“We didn’t know if we were gonna have 20 people, 50 people, 100 people,” Blue said. “When we saw that many people there it was just unreal.”
“There were a few protesters across the street and they didn’t even matter,” he said.
Jenn McIntyre felt like she was “on top of the world,” as she marched at the front of the parade, making as much noise as she could.
“I was screaming and hooting and hollering,” said McIntyre, one of the FAQS members who helped organize the first Pride. “We danced, we sang, we shouted out loud. We did the best that we could to tell people that we were here.”
She recalled looking out from the parade and spotting her mom watching from the sidewalk on George Street. “That meant the world to me,” she said. She hadn’t known if her mom would show up, but there she was looking “very proud,” she said.
McIntyre, who grew up in Peterborough, said the city’s LGBTQ+ community faced many stereotypes in the early 2000s. “It was just so hidden and not talked about at that point in time,” she said. That first Pride was partly about educating “people that there were queer people in the city,” she said. “We wanted people to know to not be afraid of us.”
Blue said that many people were “thrilled,” but also “shocked” that Peterborough was having its own Pride parade, decades after annual Pride celebrations had become fixtures in bigger cities like Toronto and Montreal.
Up until then there were few queer events in the city, except for “rainbow dances” at the Gordon Best Theatre, he said. “People never thought they’d see it happen in Peterborough. I heard that quite often.”
“[Pride] certainly shifted for me how I felt about living in Peterborough”
In 2003, Rick Lambert wasn’t fully out as a gay man, but he and his partner decided to march in the parade anyway.
“We were a bit apprehensive,” he said. At that time, he felt as if people in the LGBTQ+ community were alone against the rest of the world, he said. “It just seemed like there was this separation, in my mind anyways,” he said.
But that changed when he attended the parade and saw many people from outside the LGBTQ+ community come out to show their support, he said.
“It was really a lightbulb kind of moment for me to discover that it wasn’t us versus them,” he said. “It certainly shifted for me how I felt about living in Peterborough.” He said suddenly he felt like he didn’t have to “hide out” as a gay man in Peterborough anymore.
Lambert remembered a handful of protestors holding up signs across the street from city hall as Adams read the Pride proclamation. He said some parade-goers crossed the street to speak with them.
“People actually went over and talked to them and asked them… what’s your concern?” he said. “I think they were just concerned parents that thought we were all going to come naked or something.”
A video of the Parade shows a few protestors standing in Confederation Park holding signs scrawled with messages such as “I’m straight and proud of it” and “Your lifestyle, your business!! My streets, my business!!”
Lambert said after speaking with the Pride attendees and realizing that the parade-goers were “just regular folks,” the protestors left the park.
A few years later, Lambert joined Pride’s organizing committee, which he’s still a member of today.
While some 300 people marched in the first parade, there were few onlookers watching from the sidewalks, according to Lambert. But now the parade has ballooned in size (with at least 750 participants in 2022, he estimated) and also draws many parade-watchers to downtown sidewalks.
Also, Pride celebrations now span more than one week, with more than 30 events planned this year, Lambert said.
Lambert said “more needs to be done” to make Pride events inclusive for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community, especially racialized and trans people and people with disabilities.
To that end, Pride looked into providing sign language interpretation for the Pride proclamation reading ahead of this year’s parade, but they were not able to find a qualified interpreter on that date, Lambert said.
Pride also urged organizers to make Pride-affiliated events as accessible as possible, something he said can be a challenge because of a limited number of accessible venues in the city.
Additionally, Lambert noted that there are two Indigenous-specific events during this year’s Pride Week – a shaker making workshop and dinner being held at Trent University on Tuesday September 19 and a fall social at Peterborough Square on Thursday September 21.
Over the last 20 years, Blue has only missed one Peterborough-Nogojiwanong Pride, he said. Every time he marches in the parade, he pauses near the end and turns around to take in the scene. Every year it’s a bigger crowd. “It’s like watching your child grow up over the years,” he said.
Blue said he appreciates that Peterborough-Nogojiwanong Pride has kept a grassroots feel as it’s grown, without the heavy corporate influence that has become a major part of Pride celebrations in bigger cities like Toronto.
“I stopped going to Toronto Pride because it looked like a rolling billboard,” he said. “Peterborough is not like that.”
Peterborough’s first Pride celebrations took place only three months after Ontario became the first province in Canada to legalize same-sex marriage, on June 10, 2003. Two decades later, there is a disturbing rise in “hate rhetoric” against the LGBTQ+ community in Canada and the U.S., Lambert said. “I think everyone’s a little bit concerned about the rise of the right and potentially losing some rights and freedoms that have been hard won over the last 50 years,” he said.
The situation has people “on edge” and has prompted organizers to hire security guards for Pride celebrations in Millennium Park following the parade this year. “We’re gonna have security guards at the park not because we really expect a problem, but the community wants a safe space,” he said.
Blue said Pride is as important now as it’s ever been, pointing to policies that restrict trans rights, such as bans on gender-affirming care for children in some U.S. states. “It’s as much necessary now as it was… back when the Stonewall Riots happened,” he said.