British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

Tensions between police and Pride show a shifting target for progress

What was a moment of progress twenty years ago is not necessarily so for some activists in Vancouver’s LGBT community today.

Enduring controversy around uniformed police officers in pride shows how progress shifts over time

Revellers pose for a photos with police officers at the annual Pride Parade in Toronto in 2016. Black Lives Matter Toronto halted the parade that summer, requesting uniformed police officers be excluded from marching in the parade in protest of the Toronto Police's treatment of racialized groups. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Twenty years ago, members of Vancouver's LGBT community celebrated a milestone: for the first time in the history of the city's Pride parade, the chief of police would participate with a contingent of uniformed officers.

At the time, it was heralded as a mark of progress — a sign of approval from one of society's most conservative institutions.

In this report from July 29, 1997, then-CBC reporter Margo Harper marvelled at the contrast between the police as the "upholders of the status quo" and the marchers of the Pride parade as the "cutting edge" of society.

Vancouver's chief of police marches in 1997 in Pride Parade for first time

5 years ago
Duration 5:49
LGBT officers and guards discuss coming out at work.

Fast-forward twenty years and the subject of police in the Pride parade is a dramatically different conversation.

A new generation of LGBT activists have challenged the presence of uniformed officers in Pride parades across Canada.

These critics argue that the police uniform at the parade is a symbol of an institution that has harmed and continues to harm certain groups.

"When they march in uniform with weapons and vehicles as well, it can be traumatizing or triggering to people who have experienced police violence or their communities have experienced police violence," explained queer activist Cicely-Belle Blain, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver.

Blain's group is one of the more prominent ones opposed to police in the parade.

Police will march in Vancouver parade

Black Lives Matter Vancouver issued a set of requests earlier in the year to limit police participation in the summer Pride parade.

While the Vancouver Pride Society agreed to some of their requests — including no sirens used during the parade — it stopped short of removing all uniformed police officers from the parade.

Pride societies in other cities, like Calgary, have chosen to welcome police officers but have banned uniforms, official vehicles and floats

Disappointed by Vancouver's stance, groups including Black Lives Matter Vancouver and Rainbow Refugee are sitting out of the parade.

'We can't close the door'

Velvet Steele, the VPD's LGBT advisor, says police officers deserve to be in the parade.

Steele says the VPD have put in efforts over the years to reach out to the LGBT community and the parade should be inclusive, not exclusive.

"I like to believe that Vancouver is leading by example. We are at the table with them discussing, making things aware to them to what's going on out there in the communities," she said. 

"We can't close the door." 

From left to right: Velvet Steele, who sits on VPD's LGBTQ advisory panel; VPD's diversity officer Const. Dale Quiring; and Seattle PD officer James Ritter. Over the past years, the VPD has implemented many programs and initiatives for the LGBT community. (Simon Charland-Faucher/CBC)

Sandy Leo Laframboise, an Indigenous trans activist who calls herself "one of the old activists from the 1970s," also supports uniformed police members in the parade.

"Is there a need to improve? Certainly," she said, recalling times when she herself was the subject of police intimidation and violence.

But for her, it's time to move on and allow the police their place in the LGBT community.

"Vancouver Pride is about celebration," she said. "Vancouver police — that's their identity, that's their outfit, that's their job."

'You can never take off your skin'

But Blain says conflating a uniform with an identity like race misses the point.

"I understand that people see it that police commit their lives to their jobs, but ultimately they can take off their uniforms at any time and they can remove themselves from the institution of policing at the end of their job and go out in plain clothes at any time," she said.

"If you're a person of colour, you can never be without that. You can never take off your skin."

Cicely-Belle Blain is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver. (Alex Lamic CBC News)

A need to find common ground

Mary-Woo Sims, a queer activist and former chief commissioner of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, says the tension over uniformed police is understandable.

"If you think about the gay and lesbian community and the trans community, our history is full of incidents with the police," Sims said.

"It has not been a pretty picture. We have been bloodied. We have been arrested. Some of us still are."

Mary-Woo Sims says there's a lot more work to do to overcome the differences between members of the LGBT community. (Mikul Media 2014/ Vancouver Pride Society)

Sims says differing opinions on the subject are a reflection of the diversity of the LGBT community and the need to find common ground.

"Let's talk some more," she said. "What are we going to do in the future for better relations?"

With files from Jake Costello and Ethan Sawyer


Roshini Nair is a digital/coordinating producer with CBC Podcasts, working on series including Nothing is Foreign, The Secret Life of Canada, Kuper Island and more. She is based in Vancouver, and has previously worked on Party Lines: Party in the U.S.A., Unreserved, Unforked, and with CBC News Vancouver's digital news team.