North Bay Pride has amended plans for its 2023 Pride Week events in September, choosing to hold a march instead of a traditional parade. The decision was in response to what organizers say is an increase in anti-LGBTQ2S+ bigotry. Jason Maclennan, communications director for North Bay Pride, announced the change in a video posted to social media on July 31. “The rise in hate is dictating that we need to be more political, so we, North Bay Pride, will be more political,” he said.
The march, scheduled for mid-September in the northern Ontario city of 50,000-plus people 300 kilometres north of Toronto, is one of protest, Maclennan tells Xtra. “It’s about letting the community know that we are not going to tolerate hate and that we’re going to fight for equity and inclusion for everybody.”
To Maclennan, the sudden increase in online and offline hatred has been jarring. “We’ve had protesters—I’ve never seen a protester at a Pride event before. We actually had a protester at our drag brunch class this past April. We’ve never had that in our entire lives here.” Maclennan says a great deal of hate comes from outside the community as well in the form of online attacks. “I spend an hour of my morning trying to delete hate comments and get rid of them so we can prevent them from forcing somebody back into the closet, or somebody thinking they’re not good enough.”
Notably, OUTLoud North Bay, a community centre in the city for LGBTQ2S+ youth, was targeted last summer by the popular far-right Twitter account Libs of TikTok. This attention resulted in a reported influx of hate comments and death threats.
Maclennan says that recent struggles remind him of growing up gay in Toronto during the 1980s, when acceptance was much less common. “I feel like that is what people want us to go back to,” he says. “And most of our community is really starting to feel that and getting ticked off that we’re standing here fighting for our existence once again.”
The hate is felt harder in smaller communities, Maclennan thinks because it is less “diluted”” than in a big city. “It’s right in your face all the time.”
Maclennan expresses frustration with local MPP Vic Fedeli and Ontario premier Doug Ford. He says they have been unwilling to sit down and discuss issues the LGBTQ2S+ community faces. The lack of response is made worse, he feels, because they are feigning ignorance of the actions of their base. “I think what they’re afraid of is that if they cut out those hateful people, they’re going to lose the next election.”
Before becoming MPP and Ontario minister of economic development, job creation and trade, Fedeli was an active member of the North Bay community. He served as mayor of the city from 2003 to 2010.
When attempting to reach Fedeli’s office for comment, a statement was instead received from Mark Pelayo, director of communications for the Ministry of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, who said he was acting as a spokesperson.
“Ontario works with many organizations to help celebrate, empower and protect the community to ensure they thrive and build a stronger, safer and more inclusive Ontario for all. No one should live in fear for being who they are and loving whoever they choose, and our government has and will continue to combat hate and discrimination in all its forms, including toward LGBTQ2S+ communities,” said Pelayo.
“Since 2021, we have committed over $130 million to combat racism and hate, which includes $65 million to help protect faith, Indigenous and cultural community spaces from hate-motivated incidents, graffiti, vandalism and other damage, and ensure these communities have a safe environment to express their beliefs. We remain committed to helping LGBTQ2S+ communities in Ontario thrive, including through many grant opportunities like the $25.5 million Anti-Hate Security and Prevention Grant.”
Other politicians, such as Nipissing—Timiskaming MP Anthony Rota, have responded directly to the alleged rise in hate.
“Unfortunately, changing Pride parades to Pride marches is a trend that is taking place in many communities around the world because members of the LGBTQ+ community feel threatened. I find it sad and disturbing,” said Rota in a statement provided to Xtra.
“In Canada, I believe that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, regardless of their ethnic origin, sexual orientation or religious beliefs,” he wrote. “This is about human rights and individuals being able to be themselves. We have come a long way and we can’t let a small group of bullies who feel empowered by social media turn back the clock.”
Maclennan is grateful to those who have shown solidarity. “We have a very supportive city council and mayor and a very supportive MP, and I think that makes all the difference in the world. Can you imagine those communities that don’t have that in this country; what they’re going through?”
Also calling attention to the issue is Toronto Centre MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam. “I am heartbroken to think of the young queer and trans Ontarians who will now not get to go to their first full Pride in their home city due to safety threats,” they said in a statement published by the Ontario NDP. “I am also discouraged to hear about the lack of action and engagement from North Bay’s local MPP on this matter.”
Wong-Tam held a press conference on Aug. 3 with Maclennan and Pride leaders from across Ontario, sending the message that an increase in anti-LGBTQ2S+ sentiment is a province-wide issue. At the conference, Wong-Tam continued to call out their political opposition.
“I have done a lot to try to raise this issue to the government so that they can take action and be proactive. Unfortunately, they have sidestepped their responsibility and we’re asking them to step up because it is their responsibility to take action,” they said. “If Doug Ford continues on this road, the Prides that we have in Ontario will be further reduced and even cancelled, regrettably.”
A common theme during the conference was how increased threats and lacking support from the provincial government has made it more challenging to plan Pride events. “Instead of focusing on creating a fun and safe environment, we had to shift our focus to crisis planning,” said Julie Nobert-De Marchi, treasurer for Fierté Timmins Pride, of planning this year’s events.
Maclennan says he remains proud of North Bay’s LGBTQ2S+ community in the face of adversity. “The one thing that I find impressive about our community is the willingness to listen to each other and support those that want to take lead.” He points out the fact that North Bay is one of few places north of Toronto to hold a trans march. He says that the community is similarly supportive of its Indigenous population.
Maclennan also appreciates how his community shows up for each other. “You know, they really, truly show up, especially if you’re new to coming out or you’re struggling with your identity. The community is there.”
Given this, Maclennan remains unconvinced that hate will win. “The human spirit of our community, I think, is going to fight.”
“I think the Pride march turnout is going to be great because I know everybody is against hate and they’re going to show these haters that they are not welcome in our community. They are not welcome in North Bay and they are not welcome in the country.”
North Bay Pride’s march will take place on Sept. 16.