Pride Winnipeg calls for better police training on LGBT issues, applauds openness of police service

The president of Pride Winnipeg says the organization is looking towards education to help build more bridges between police and the LGBT community.

Pride Winnipeg requested police officers marching in the parade wear plain clothes, not uniforms

Winnipeg's 30th Pride parade took place Sunday. This year, police were asked not to wear their uniforms in the march. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The president of Pride Winnipeg says the organization is looking towards education to help build more bridges between police and the LGBT community.

Pride president Jonathan Niemczak said a new policy announced in May, asking police officers marching in the parade not to wear their uniforms, wasn't universally popular but it made vulnerable members of the LGBT community feel safer.

The move came after 10 months of consultation with LGBT community members and groups about police participation in the Pride festival, including an online survey that found a third of the 600 respondents had had negative experiences with police.

A similar conversation has been happening in Pride organizations across the country, with parades in Toronto and Vancouver bringing in the same uniform ban as Winnipeg.

"I would say the majority of the community was accepting of our statement, of our position on police involvement in Pride," Niemczak said.

"Obviously the folks that were impacted the most did appreciate the fact that we did listen and we did follow through with making Pride a safer space for them."

Winnipeg police officer Insp. Gord Friesen marched in the parade without his uniform and said it went well.

"You know there's been a lot of talk about it, it's been in the media a lot and as we know there is a real difference of opinion in terms of police in, police out, uniforms, no uniforms," he said.

The move was questioned by police union president Moe Sabourin, who told CBC News in May that he was disappointed by the decision.

But Friesen said he's worked closely with the LGBT community and understood Pride's request.

He compared it to a WPS practice of meeting with newcomers out of uniform to make them feel more comfortable if they've had bad experiences with authorities from other countries.

"I would say that what we heard from the folks from Pride was the same thing from some segments of their population," he said.

But he added he also understands why some police officers might be offended by the idea.

"Let's face it, many of our rank-and-file officers are out there doing their job, they're up in the middle of the night dealing with dangerous and very stressful situations." he said.

"When they feel they're putting themselves out there serving the public, then somebody's saying but we don't want you wearing uniforms and representing, you know, they take offence to that, and I absolutely get that.

"So I think there's education kind of going both ways in this one."

Listening the key to successful engagement

Quinnzarr Zwingerman, also known by the drag name Lady Quinnzar Moans, said Pride made the right move.

"There's conversations going both ways saying that it's not inclusive, but why it was important [is] because of the community that can't really speak up for themselves, where they come from," Zwingerman said.

Many of the people with negative associations to the uniform are newcomers who have been victimized by police in other countries, she said, and some wouldn't come if they knew police would be there.

"We need to respectful of everyone who wants to come to Pride, because that's what it's all about," Zwingerman said.

"I know a lot of my family, and my two-spirited, my transgender people, are scared to be around police sometimes because of how they treat them, how they misgender them, how they judge them or think they're just sex workers because of how they look."

Quinnzarr Zwingerman, also known as Lady Quinnzarr Moans, praised Pride Winnipeg's decision to ban police uniforms in the parade. (CBC)

Moving forward, Niemczak said the organization will meet with police to work together on further improving the relationship with the LGBT community.

As part of Pride's announcement on police uniforms, the organization included a number of goals for the service, including better training on LGBT issues for all officers and more engagement between police and the LGBT community year-round, focusing on traditionally marginzalized groups like trans people and people of colour.

The arrest of a transgender activist beside the Manitoba Legislature on Saturday, hours before the city's first-ever Trans March, illustrates the importance of those conversations, Niemczak said.

"That's just another example of where we need to work with the Winnipeg police on identifying these challenges that our community has, and providing them with … more feedback, as well as making sure as they're engaging with the community on a more regular basis," he said.

Niemczak said the key to the success of meetings between police and Pride will be listening.

"You can do as much engagement as you want, but unless you're really listening to the community and listening to our concerns and forming action plans, then there's really not going to be a change on the relationship and on those concerns," he said.

"So that's what we're going to be continuing to work with the Winnipeg Police Service on, and I will say the Winnipeg Police Service has been very open and understanding of our dialogue, and has committed themselves to continuing to work with us."

With files from CBC's Nelly Gonzalez and Aidan Geary