Steinbach's 1st ever Pride march set for Saturday morning

Final preparations are underway for the inaugural Pride march in Steinbach, Man., with organizers saying they expect to see at least 1,000 people converging upon the Bible Belt city on Saturday from across Manitoba and beyond.

People coming from across Manitoba and beyond for 1st march in Bible Belt city

The first ever Steinbach Pride march will take place Saturday at 11 a.m. in Steinbach, a city located 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. (Canadian Press)

Final preparations are underway for the inaugural Pride march in Steinbach, Man., with organizers saying they expect to see at least 1,000 people converging upon the Bible Belt city on Saturday from across Manitoba and beyond.

The march gets underway at 11 a.m. CT in Steinbach, located 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. It will be followed by speeches, education sessions and an evening celebration in nearby La Broquerie. CBC will be streaming the parade on its site and on Facebook Live, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Organizers have faced some challenges in making the march a reality in Steinbach, where a number of residents have cited their Christian beliefs as a reason for refusing to back the event, although some Christians have expressed support.

"It became apparent there needs to be a public statement, something to show people and counter some of the really negative things being said, that you are actually supported and you are OK just the way that you are and not everybody believes that there's something wrong with the way you are," said Michelle McHale, a spokesperson for the march.

Conservative MP Ted Falk refused to attend the Pride march. Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen and member of the legislature Kelvin Goertzen are not attending the Pride event because they said they had prior commitments.

Steinbach Pride spokeswoman Michelle McHale says a public statement needs to be made to 'counter some of the really negative things being said' about the LGBT community. (CBC)
As well, the mayor and city council released a written statement that they would not endorse the march.

"I've been clear on this issue many times, and have made my position public on my values of faith, family, and community," Falk said in a statement issued June 20.

Media attention surrounding opposition to the march has galvanized support for the event. Initially, organizers expected 200 people to attend, but they now estimate 1,000 people will come from across Manitoba and as far away as Ontario, British Columbia and Florida.

The controversy has even caught the attention of Canadian indie pop stars Tegan and Sara, who have stated their support for the event on social media.

Couple arrives from Toronto

Among those who travelled far to take part in the march are Dale Kehler and Viraj Tanna of Toronto, who have been together for 11 years and married for three.

Kehler, who is originally from Steinbach, said he wants to show his support for the local LGBT community and share his experiences of growing up gay in a Christian community.

Viraj Tanna, left, and Dale Kehler have flown to Manitoba from Toronto to attend the Steinbach Pride march. (CBC)
"I think growing up as a teenager is hard enough, but in an environment like this, where church is an integral part of your life — your culture, your beliefs, your activities — to know you're gay and have all the messaging around you telling you that that's not right … it's isolating, it's frightening, it's terrifying," he said.

"I felt like I had this deep secret that I couldn't share with anybody."

Kehler added that last month's shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., shows that there is more work to be done when it comes to LGBT rights.

'How far we've come'

St. Boniface Liberal MP Dan Vandal, who will read a message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Saturday's march, says times have changed since he raised a Pride flag at Winnipeg City Hall for the first time in 1999.

Vandal, who was the city councillor for St. Boniface at the time, said police had suggested he wear a Kevlar protective vest to the flag raising.

He said back then, some people felt so strongly against having the Pride flag flying over city hall that threats had been made.

"I didn't wear it. There was a little tension, but at the end of the day everything was fine," he said.

"That's an example of Winnipeg 1999. It shows how far we've come."

Vandal said he will be at the Steinbach parade to show how diversity makes Canada strong, and how attitudes have changed over the years.

"Have we gone far enough? Absolutely not. I think you can judge that by some of the response to the Steinbach parade," he said. "But I think, you know, it takes time."