Island's LGBT history shared for national museum

As plans for the country's first LGBT museum take shape in Ottawa, some Islanders are taking stock of what possible contributions might come from P.E.I., and reflecting on how far they've come.

A museum dedicated to the stories, art and culture of LGBTQ2+ people is slated to open in Ottawa in 2021

Jim Culbert and Nola Etkin have been gay-rights activists on the Island for decades. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

As plans for the country's first LGBT museum take shape in Ottawa, some Islanders are taking stock of what possible contributions might come from P.E.I., and reflecting on how far they've come.

The initiative is being led by the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. Right now, the group is working on raising funds, and collecting stories from across the country.

Nola Etkin and Jim Culbert have been gay-rights activists on the Island for decades — and they're both delighted with the prospect of a national museum dedicated to the stories, art and culture of LGBTQ2+ people.

"It means that we're part of the history of this country and we won't be forgotten, and I think that's important," said Etkin.

Preserving history, celebrating progress

For Culbert, it's not just important to preserve these pieces of history, it's also important to celebrate how far the LGBT community in P.E.I. has come.

"We're all getting older," said Culbert. "The young kids don't realize what we've gone through so they could have what they have which is normal."

Etkin was a founder of ARC (Abegweit Rainbow Collective) and helped get the first Pride festivals off the ground almost 20 years ago. She was also part of the push to get sexual orientation included in the Island's human-rights legislation.

Nola Etkin helped get the first Pride festivals off the ground almost 20 years ago. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Culbert helped build the Island's gay community from the ground up, initially hosting parties in his own home, then planning larger ones at bigger venues. He started www.gaypei.com as a way for people to meet and connect — and as a way to encourage more gay people to visit or move to the Island.

People just needed to see that we were here and we're people and that we were their friends and neighbours and family members.— Nola Etkin

"It was a very welcoming community, it was just very hidden," said Etkin. When she arrived on the Island in the late '90s, the only resource she could find was a disconnected lesbian information line. She said she found her community slowly, with the help of a handful of people.

"In those days we'd meet at the farmers market every Saturday and we'd have potlucks every month and we would go to Lonestar for dinner every second Friday — it was very much you had to know people."

'We'll always carry on fighting'

Etkin said it took a lot of work and persistence to get equal rights, and it wasn't always easy to be gay in P.E.I.

"There was certainly some hateful resistance," said Etkin. "But I think a lot of it was just ignorance, and people just needed to see that we were here and we're people and that we were their friends and neighbours and family members, and we did get acceptance."

Nola Etkin says there was 'some hateful resistance' to the LGBT community on the Island. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

The pair says despite the fact that P.E.I. was about a decade behind the rest of the country in terms of gay rights, there's a lot from the Island to help tell the story: documents, news clippings and memorabilia, to showcase and commemorate the community that evolved and shines so bright today.

"We may be the small province and we may be the last," said Culbert. "But we fought and we got gay marriage and we've got recognition and we'll always carry on fighting for rights and recognitions."

Submissions accepted online

The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity is currently accepting submissions for potential contributions to the museum online.

Executive director Jeremy Dias says the group plans to visit the Island this fall.

Etkins and Culbert think it's important to preserve and celebrate the history of the LGBT community on P.E.I. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

"We want to meet with students and other members of the LGBTQ community," said Dias. "To consult with them on what they would like to see represented and how they would like to see P.E.I. represented in the museum."

The museum is slated to open in 2021.

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About the Author

Jessica Doria-Brown

Videojournalist

Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.