Manitoba

Pride Winnipeg's new president has his own story of adversity

The new leader of Pride Winnipeg is a newcomer to Canada with his own story of overcoming adversity.

As a Muslim in South Asia, Muhammad Ahsan was forced to conceal his identity

People march in the 2017 Winnipeg Pride parade. Muhammad Ahsan is the new president of Pride Winnipeg. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Just a couple of years ago, Muhammad Ahsan was taking part in underground events hiding his true identity as a queer Muslim.

Now the 34-year-old is out and proud in a big way and is getting ready to take charge of Pride Winnipeg.

Ahsan will be replacing the organization's current president, Jonathan Niemczak, who will step down next month from the volunteer role he's held with the festival since 2012.

"I'm very excited but at the same time I am very well aware that it's a very critical position," Ahsan said in an interview with CBC. 

Jonathan Niemczak has served as president of Pride Winnipeg since 2012. (Avi Jacob/CBC)

Ahsan came to Winnipeg from South Asia as a provincial nominee in 2016. He comes from a place where being LGBT is criminalized and while he was involved with the LGBT community back home it was always underground and kept secret.

"If we meet outside safe spaces we even pretend we don't know each other so that's the kind of life there is," he said.

Before coming to Winnipeg, Ahsan started checking out the Rainbow Resource Centre, a hub for LGBT folks in the city. The centre proved to be pivotal on his journey in claiming his identity in Canada.

He started going to meetings at New Pride of Winnipeg, a support group for newcomers at the Rainbow Resource Centre.

Coming out 'liberating'

After three meetings, he came out as a proud queer Muslim.

"That was probably the most liberating moment for me."

Last year, Ahsan joined Pride's board as the vice-president of community engagement. He called the experience "amazing," and applied to fill Niemczak's shoes after he announced this summer he would be stepping down as leader of the festival.

The Pride Winnipeg board voted to have Ahsan be the organization's new president and made the decision public on Tuesday. Ahsan said he has dreamt of making Pride more diverse and plans to reach out to marginalized members of the community who may not feel included in the annual festival.

Niemczak said the festival is in good hands with Ahsan.

"His broad knowledge of issues that affect our community, coupled with years of experience in rights activism, education and training, conflict resolution, and research and development, makes Muhammad well positioned to lead the organization going forward," Niemczak wrote in a press release.

Will have to tackle issue of cops at Pride

One of the most critical hot-button issues he will have to tackle is whether uniformed officers should be able to march in the annual Pride parade. In 2017, the festival decided to ban police in uniforms from marching following consultations it did with marginalized groups through an online survey.

The Winnipeg Police Association criticized the move, pointing out there are a number of officers who are part of the LGBT community who would like to march and the issue has been hotly debated ever since.

Ahsan said any change on the issue will take time "It's not going to happen overnight," he said adding if there was to be any change on the issue it would only come after consultations with the community.

"It has to be through mass consensus through the community members."

Ahsan will step into his new role officially on Oct. 1. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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