Stories to Spaces: A History of Pride in Abbotsford

Written by Amber Purewal, edited by Sara Bremner

Heritage Abbotsford staff hold a garland with pride flags in the shape of hearts.

It was a dreary evening in early October of 2017 when massive numbers of Fraser Valley residents turned up at Garden Park Tower on Clearbrook Road to welcome supporters of anti-Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) curriculum. These anti-LGBTQ2S+ speakers spoke about the so-called “social contagion” that is LGBTQ2S+ communities through long speeches, videos and questions that spanned an exhausting two and a half hours.

At one point in the evening, one of the speakers had the audience applauding while they laughed at a “joke” mocking transgender individuals. They intent was to have the audience vote out members of the government who supported SOGI. “We are in a war for our nation and our children,” exclaimed Simpson, one of the speakers.

Unfortunately, this is just one example of the prejudice faced by the LGBTQ2S+ community in Abbotsford. There are numerous instances of over-whelming support from residents in Abbotsford as well – such as BC Parents for Inclusion supporting SOGI, claiming “they are standing against hatred, and the spread of disinformation about SOGI 123.” However, in terms of progressiveness, Abbotsford has been falling behind as it struggles to catch up with its more progressive and inclusive neighboring cities. After all, it’s known as one of the most socially conservative places in British Columbia for a reason. However, we can acknowledge that Abbotsford is slowly making the effort of becoming a more inclusive and diverse space for individuals from many walks of life – even if it took some time to get here.

One of the more notable moments in terms of the fight for LGBTQ2S+ rights in Abbotsford is the story of when the first Pride parade in Abbotsford was supposed to take place in 2008. This event was organized by high school students, and their plans were posted on Facebook. However, this idea was met with so much hatred and hostility that the plans were dropped. Reportedly, much of this hate stemmed from the biases of the Fraser Valley’s more conservative residents. With help from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Pride Network, a social justice rally was drawn up instead in the hopes of drawing more people. Peaceful “Walk Away from Homophobia” marches have been held every year since.

The same year, religious groups lobbied to have the school board disband a supposedly controversial high school social justice elective that discussed topics such as homosexuality, gender identity, and discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ communities and individuals. Many students registered for the course at WJ Mouat – approximately 90 – were suddenly given the news that they had to find a new course to take in its place.

This culminated into a rally. Youth thought it was important to draw awareness to the lack of diversity within the education system and express their disappointment at the Ministry of Education. A human rights complaint was also filed against the school board regarding removing this course. It was finally decided that parental and guardian consent would be required for students to enroll in the course.

“I would hope that parents would be open and allow their children to take the education that they wanted to get,” said John Kuipers, president of the University of the Fraser Valley Pride Network.

According to teacher and LGBTQ2S+ activist James Chamberlain, “It’s a victory for the students of Abbotsford.”

Almost four years later, the City of Abbotsford welcomed another victory – the Pride parade finally took to the streets. The first Pride festival in the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford) was held on 25 May 2013. This was a cause for celebration in many regards, especially considering the failed efforts of the past.

This Pride began with a walk from Matsqui Recreation Centre (MRC) to the Civic Plaza. Evening events held at Trethewey House Heritage Site included a showing of a documentary by filmmaker Gwen Haworth entitled She’s a Boy I Knew detailing her gender transition. There was also a panel discussion about the Fraser Valley Youth Society (FVYS). This family-friendly event was popular, attracting about 500 people.

“We have a lot of transgender people in the Valley, who are a really silenced, invisible population,” said Kuipers. “For us, Pride is a celebration of gender and sexual diversity.”

Kuipers continued to say that, “even in light of some of the opposition we’ve faced in past years, it’s still been successful. There are always going to be people who disagree with what you’re doing, but I’d hope it doesn’t interfere with trying to send that message.”

In 2015, after a request, City Hall made the decision to fly the Pride flag to show support from the local government towards the LGBTQ2S+ community. It was also meant to support diversity as well. This was the first time they had hoisted the flag – and possibly the last.

Although many expressed their joy at such an achievement of city council, there were also numerous who expressed their objections. One resident in particular claimed the city was endorsing “sexual immorality.”

“I know some people are not going to be happy with this, but I don’t view this as endorsing anything … this is about accepting people…” said Mayor Braun. Following this decision, the city council approved a new flag policy and the Pride flag will no longer be flown at city hall again in the future.

In 2017, there was yet again more protests surrounding the school curriculum. However, this time it had revolved around Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) being incorporated into schooling. SOGI 123 is “a set of resources available to teachers to help them address issues around sexual orientation and gender identity.” Right-wing activists who have attempted to recruit Abbotsford residents into their group are convinced that local schools are brainwashing children to identify as LGBTQ2S+. This so-called protest was met with a room full of Abbotsford residents.

On the other hand, hundreds of people throughout BC (including Abbotsford) rallied in support of SOGI within the curriculum chanting slogans such as “love wins out.” Morgane Oger, a transgender pro-SOGI activist, maintains that SOGI provides teachers tools to “uphold the protections enshrined for gender identity and sexual orientation with the country’s Charter of Rights.” Many people, including supportive parents, came out to show their support of this curriculum, bring attention to the topic, and counter misinformation about SOGI 123.

Michael Boyd, a nine-year old boy at the time of the rally, spoke out publicly for the first time about his gender at the rally saying he chose to use the pronouns of “him” and “he.” His grandmother accompanied him and stated, “It’s something that, as a grandmother, I feel like I need to have his back and speak up for him.”

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation will not be changing their stance because of this discriminatory group.

“No individual, because of how they walk in the world – because they’re a person of colour or they’re of a different nationality, or they are from a sexual minority group – should have to hide who they are and, in fact, the school system has the obligation to take pro-active steps to ensure that people are not just safe in schools but that there is an inclusive environment,” Glen Hansman, President of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, told The News.

Although Abbotsford is still working towards acceptance of our LGBTQ2S+ community, there are also many people within the city who strive to create a more inclusive and safer environment for everyone. Fraser Valley Youth Society is one example of such an organization. This organization includes a weekly drop-in for peer support and counselling; they are also the founding organization that runs Fraser Valley Pride each year.

Another resource is the Allied Youth Drop-in whose focus is to support and connect LGBTQ2S+ and Allied youth to their peers and communities. It also provides support and inclusion help where required. They provide drop-in on a weekly basis. There is also a Monthly Peer Support Meeting hosted by PFLAG Canada in Abbotsford. This support meeting allows friends and family of LGBTQ2S+ people to come together to share experiences, resources, and ask questions.

In addition to resources, today Pride is celebrated in Abbotsford annually and include vendors, food trucks, artists, and more events. Some religious groups have also participated since 2013 – they called on their coreligionists to reconsider their opposition.

It is thanks to the work of Fraser Valley residents attending rallies, joining organizations, organizing events, and advocating for change that LGBTQ2S+ youth in Abbotsford are able to now grow up in a healthier and more supportive environment – regardless of how they identify or who they love. This has had a profound impact on Abbotsford, and hopefully these attempts to raise support and awareness will continue to make out community a more inclusive and loving place.

For further resources, the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) has also created a local LGBTQ2S+ resource list that can be found online.