In what is being called a first in Canada, a rainbow-coloured gay-pride flag was raised at an Alberta military base today during a ceremony attended by senior officers and civilian members of the LGBT community.
Master Warrant Officer John McDougall, 47, made the request for the flag-raising a few weeks ago through the military chain of command at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.
McDougall, who is a company sergeant-major in a field medical unit, said he was surprised when his request was quickly granted.
"I expected [to hear] no, the the timeline is going to be too short, or perhaps the appetite isn't quite there. I could not be more surprised, more impressed and more pleased."
He said times have changed since he joined the army as a private 23 years ago.
"This is a huge turnaround from what used to be. When I first joined, I would never even consider telling anyone that I was gay. It just wasn't macho," he said.
"I think it is a little naive to think there weren't gay soldiers then, [but] the culture really didn't lend itself to identify who you were," he added.
Even after a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge in 1992 that guaranteed gay and lesbian individuals could serve openly in the military, he hesitated in coming out. It wasn’t until five years later that McDougall formally acknowledged his relationship with his long-term partner.
"I still was a little hesitant to come out because nobody wants to be the first one to step up when decisions are changed," he said.
History in the making
The rainbow flag, a symbol for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, was raised near the base headquarters building. It will remain in place for one week to coincide with Edmonton's Pride Festival.
"It was history in the making, it was monumental," said McDougall, speaking about the ceremony. "That being said ... it’s a big deal but it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. We’re such an inclusive society — Canada as a whole, not just the military — it shouldn’t be a big deal to be gay.
"But it is a big deal that the flag is being raised for the first time at a military base. I think that’s part of the sign of the times and it’s a further reflection of the military’s inclusiveness and their diversity."
Lt. (navy) Jessica MacDonald, a military spokeswoman, said those who work at the sprawling base that includes infantry and armoured units have been supportive.
There has been no backlash, she said.
"The flag-raising is really a symbol to all members of the LGBT community," she said, "whether they are civilian or serving members, that the Canadian Forces promotes principles of inclusiveness, equality and dignity."
The ceremony was attended by base commander Lt.-Col. John Reiffenstein, soldiers, civilians from the LGBT community and their supporters.
"It’s vital that we are an inclusive, tolerant, military community, defence community," Reiffenstein said Friday. "These are Canadian values."
And it is important to recognize those values in a physical way, he added.
"Symbols matter — and we understand that in the army."
As for McDougall, he said the experience was "amazing."
"To be at the stage now, where it is not only recognized and accepted and tolerated, but the base commander of one of the largest bases of Canada is willing to have that flag put up, it is just an amazing feeling."
McDougall attended the ceremony with his partner of 18 years.