Walking tours take stroll through Ottawa's LGBT history

New walking tours let you take a stroll through some of Ottawa's LGBT community's most important landmarks and significant events, from the days when undercover police officers monitored gay men in hotel bars to the modern Pride movement.

The Village Legacy Project funded by the Bank Street BIA

The rainbow-coloured crosswalk at the intersection of Bank Street and Somerset Street became permanent in June 2016. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Interested in local history with an LGBT twist? New walking tours let you take a stroll through some of the community's most important landmarks and significant events, from the days when undercover police officers monitored gay men in hotel bars to the birth of the Pride movement in Ottawa.

The Bank Street BIA's Village Legacy Project, launched Tuesday with a new website, lays out three different walking tours through downtown Ottawa that highlight residences, bars, community resource centres and more significant spots pivotal to LGBT history in the city.

The bar at the Lord Elgin hotel became a gathering spot for Ottawa's gay community beginning in the 1950s. (Village Legacy Project)
One of those spots is the Lord Elgin Hotel, where community members began to gather at the bar in the 1950s.

"There were no gay bars really until about roughly the early 80s, when bars started opening up that were actually for our community. So we found places that we could gather that were at least somewhat welcoming," said Glenn Crawford, the researcher behind the project.

But even while community members were trying to create safe spaces for themselves during that era, they were also subject to hostility and discrimination. The tours are designed to shine a light on the unfair treatment LGBT people in Ottawa endured.

'It's part of our history'

"Places like the Lord Elgin hotel — there are stories of people talking about how RCMP agents were in disguise with a newspaper in front of them, and they were taking picture of people in the bar, trying to identify them. So this absolutely was happening in Ottawa, and it's part of our history," said Crawford.
Gay rights activists demonstrated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 29, 1971. (The Canadian Press)

The tours direct walkers to locations relevant to the fight for equal rights in the city, including an apartment building on Somerset Street West where important discussions were happening in 1971.

"A meeting happened at the home of Maurice Belanger and Michael Black, and they invited people including Charlie Hill and others to discuss the formation of an organization called Gays of Ottawa," said Crawford. 

"Earlier that year there was a demonstration on Parliament Hill called 'We Demand,' and it was the first demonstration in Canada that was lobbying for rights for LGBT people."

Bank Street Village

Many of the dozens of stops on the tours are on and around Bank Street, which was designated "The Village" for the LGBT community in 2011.
Glenn Crawford is the researcher behind the Village Legacy Project. (Supplied)

"It was something that was of interest to me," said Crawford. "Even though we had an official designation of the village in 2011 — I knew that the history sort of organically happened much earlier, say about the mid-80s."

As part of his research, Crawford conducted 35 interviews with community members to detail Ottawa's LGBT history.

"Their personal stories were fascinating, because even though you can do the research and you can read about it, it's listening to people's stories that lived through that period and actually experienced these things that was really interesting and profound," he said.

The project launch includes an exhibition of archival photos at the Wallack Gallery on Bank Street that runs until Aug. 22.
The organization Gays of Ottawa was formed at this apartment building at 270 Somerset St. W. in 1971. (Village Legacy Project)

With files from CBC Radio's All in a Day