Winnipeg 1987 to Steinbach 2016: Manitoba's first Pride Parades

The atmosphere of anticipation, excitement, anxiety and fear in Steinbach, Man., ahead of its first Pride Parade mirrors what was felt before Winnipeg’s first recognized Pride March almost 29 years ago.

Manitoba’s first recognized Gay Pride March took place on Aug. 2, 1987

A still shot from CBC's documentary, 'One Gay City: A History of LGBT Life in Winnipeg.' As Steinbach prepares to host its first Pride Parade, local activists remember organizing the first one in Winnipeg. "There was also that sense of not being alone. I think all of us had grown up feeling so invisible and so different than other people and just to see evidence that we weren't alone was extremely powerful," one said. (CBC's documentary, 'One Gay City')

The signs are being stencilled and the banners are being coloured as people in Steinbach prepare for their first Pride Parade on Saturday.

It's an atmosphere of anticipation, excitement, anxiety and fear that mirrors Winnipeg's first recognized Pride Parade almost 29 years ago.

"It is important for them and they are really brave, the people who are doing it in Steinbach. It must not be easy," said Martin Chochinov, who helped organize the 1987 parade in Winnipeg.

In Steinbach, the day of celebration for the LGBT members of the community of just over 13,500 has been mired in controversy.

The parade was initially not given a permit to walk on the streets, and there were concerns the marchers would be stuck on the sidewalk.

The City of Steinbach will not endorse the Pride Parade. Conservative MP Ted Falk, Mayor Chris Goertzen and MLA Kelvin Goertzen have said they will not attend the Steinbach parade.

"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 an emailed statement.

"I will not be attending the Pride march taking place in Steinbach on July 9, nor do I intend to participate in any other events organized by this group."

The community, founded by Mennonites in 1874, is the sometimes reluctant host of the latest in a string of first Pride Parades across the province. Manitoba's second-largest city, Brandon, celebrated its first Pride Parade last year.  The "Hub of the North," Thompson, held its first parade in 2014.

Martin Chochinov, who now lives in Toronto, fought to make Winnipeg's first Pride Parade a reality. (Supplied)

"What's happening in Steinbach is really, it's clear it's just homophobia. It's bigotry. There is no clouding that up in anything else," said Chochinov, who now lives in Toronto.

Nearly three decades ago in Winnipeg, Chochinov said the stakes were high for those organizing the parade — they were coming out to an entire community and they were uncertain what backlash they would face. That's why it's inspiring to see Steinbach's parade move ahead now, he said.

1987 Gay Pride march

6 years ago
Duration 1:41
Loreen Pindera reports of the Gay Pride march in Winnipeg in 1987.

'There was a great sense of invisibility'

Jaik Josephson remembers when Anita Bryant, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, came to Winnipeg to speak in 1978, when he was growing up. Still trying to figure out his own identity, Josephson said he remembers his friends being excited about going to egg and bully members of the LGBT community.   

"I think back in that time period, many of us also didn't really have a sense of hope that we would ever reach this place that so many of us are at today, where we are able to be out in all aspects of our lives," Josephson said.

"We are able to function and participate in so many parts of society that we expected would always be denied for us."

Manitoba's LGBT history is rich and full of important moments, including a one-off Gay Pride March held at the beginning of the National Gay Liberation Conference in 1974, but the first annual Gay Pride March took place on Aug. 2, 1987.

Josephson, who lives in Winnipeg, was involved in its organization.

"At that point there was a great sense of invisibility," he said.

"There was a great sense of fear because many of us had grown up with the knowledge that there was always a threat of violence or loss in terms of people being excluded from family, from being able to get housing or a job, or being excluded from their faith community, if that was a part of their life."

In the weeks leading up to the march, Josephson said they didn't have an idea whether 20 or 200 people would show up, and those who said they were coming were so afraid, there were discussions about wearing bags over their heads so they wouldn't be identified. Josephson himself wore a big, floppy hat and sunglasses because he had too much to lose as a social worker, he said.

Jaik Josephson, pictured in the 1980s, helped organize Winnipeg's first Pride Parade in 1987. (Supplied)

'A feeling of real possibility and pride'

When the day actually came, an estimated 250 people marched.

It was life-changing, Josephson and Chochinov said.

"It was incredible. It was just a feeling of real possibility and pride. It was a sense … we can be out in the daytime," Josephson said.

"There was also that sense of not being alone. I think all of us had grown up feeling so invisible and so different than other people and just to see evidence that we weren't alone was extremely powerful."

Chochinov recently found the shirt he wore at the event, which read "out and proud." He said it was a culmination of decades of activism from hundreds of people the same year Manitoba added sexual orientation to the human rights code.

It wasn't just about walking the street, he said.

"Behind having a very, for the time and for the money and the resources that we had, a really bold, flashy parade down Broadway … it was a huge accomplishment for people who really sacrificed," he said. 

Chochinov watched Justin Trudeau become the first Canadian prime minister to take part in a Pride Parade on the weekend in Toronto. It reminded him of the significance of that first parade in Winnipeg, he said.

"So many things came together. It was a small but an important time for Winnipeg's history, to make something like that happen," he said.

Where they Stand - 1992 civic election candidates explain their position on gay pride

6 years ago
Duration 3:03
16 candidates vying for the cities top job in 1992 talk about their stance on gay pride.

Advice for Steinbach

Josephson plans to go to Steinbach to show his support for the organizers and participants at the Pride Parade.

He said he's watched many people from rural communities in Manitoba leave because they couldn't truly be themselves. Steinbach's parade will show people they too can belong, he said.

"My family is here. My history is here. It's important to be able to maintain this as home, and I think going into Saturday, I'm really thinking about some of the rural folks, some of the people that [will see] maybe they don't have to leave, maybe they can maintain their sense of home and belonging in a way that a lot of people in my generation couldn't."

Whatever the turnout and whatever the backlash, it's important they support each other and take care of themselves, he said.

"I think part of my advice, if I should be so bold, would be to take care of each other and take care of their own selves," he said.

"Because I think this kind of activism is exhausting, as exhilarating as it is. It's exhausting."

CBC will be streaming the Steinbach Pride parade on its site and on Facebook Live, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Winnipeg mayor Bill Norrie gets the 'twinkie' award in 1992

6 years ago
Duration 2:21
In 1992, the Mayor of Winnipeg Bill Norrie was accused of discriminating against homosexuality.