COVID-19 threw a wrench into the planning process of Pride celebrations around the world. For the various Pride groups on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, this was no different.
Many organizations had to cancel their celebrations, but some were able to pivot and transition events online, leading to an unexpected change in engagement on an island that’s difficult to travel across.
The Island, as it is colloquially called, is almost six times the size of Prince Edward Island and has a population of 845,611. More than half of the population is found in the two largest cities—B.C.’s capital, Victoria, and the city of Nanaimo, an hour and a half away.
Vancouver Island has seen an outburst of local Pride societies and LGBTQ2S+ initiatives in recent years. There are at least six Pride societies across the Island, with three of those being created in only the past five years.
Canadians are reported to have a positive attitude towards LGBTQ2S+ people, but, in the past, parts of Vancouver Island have been known to hold a socially-conservative reputation.
According to Alessandro Iachelli, the president of the Nanaimo Pride Society, the Island wasn’t always an accepting place. He said it took a lot of community effort to reshape the Island’s views.
“There were some very dedicated people, some really strong community leaders, that were working hard to try and change attitudes,” he said.
The Nanaimo Pride Society was founded in 1997, and hosted their first Pride parade in 2016. Pride parades are an opportunity for LGBTQ2S+ people to come together and express themselves, and showcase resources and groups are in the area.
“From my own personal experience since I’ve been here, I’ve always been made to feel welcome,” said Iachelli. “I think because Vancouver Island is very community- and family-oriented, it’s very laid back. It’s very West Coast.”
“I think it’s kind of a unique place in many respects, because there’s so many different things that cater to our queer community.”
Groups on the Island provide services for a wide spectrum of needs, depending on the area. In larger communities, like Victoria, there are groups to help LGBTQ2S+ people find housing and jobs, as well as writers circles and choirs. In Port Hardy, a town of 4,132 on the North Island, there is one Pride society that organizes a yearly parade.
“We have numerous events throughout the Island, from the southern end all the way to the north,” said Iachelli. “We’ve got community groups that cater to all parts of our queer community like seniors, transgender people, youth, and so on.”
Still, there are difficulties for LGBTQ2S+ people on Vancouver Island, especially for youth and young adults.
To connect with young people, the Nanaimo Pride Society often plans all-ages events.
“Some of the board members have taken it upon themselves to organize either all-inclusive swims, games nights or a talent show. Then every year we do a youth dance during Pride Week, which was usually in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club,” said Iachelli.
The Boys and Girls Clubs, a North American after-school childcare organization, has an LGBTQ2S+ youth group called Generation Q in their Central Vancouver Island branch, that specializes in youth programs. The Nanaimo Pride Society partnered with them to organize their annual Pride dance and connect with teenagers in the area.
The Nanaimo Pride Society also has plans to start a youth committee in the fall, and to introduce a youth director on the Board.
“I think there’s been a willingness and wish to have more youth engagement,” said Iachelli. “So I think as a board now we’re like, ‘Okay, well, what do we need to do?’”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing requirements, Nanaimo was unable to quickly make the change to online programming, and had to cancel their Pride week events for the summer.
“We need to put the health and well-being of our community first,” said Iachelli.
Fortunately, the Nanaimo Pride Society has taken this as a learning opportunity. Since late June, they’ve been uploading videos of local musicians and drag performers to their Youtube.
“We’re kind of learning all the ins and outs of different platforms,” said Iachelli. “[Like] how to livestream on social media and [use] our Youtube channel, which was quiet for the last year. It’s now growing and is being used for different things.”
In Victoria, the Pride Society has handled the pandemic’s restrictions differently from Nanaimo. The city has held Pride events since 1981, with their first official parade happening in 1994.
Nick Luney, Youth Initiative Chair and member of the Victoria Pride Society, grew up in the central part of the Island, where Nanaimo is located. He said many smaller Pride Societies struggle to connect with younger community members.
“From lived experience, I would say there’s not very much out there communicated or promoted in terms of youth support or engagement beyond high school,” he said.
To engage with young LGBTQ2S+ people, the Victoria Pride Society has a specific youth initiative council, made up of people aged 14 to 24. The council plans workshops and the Society’s Youth Pride week, which saw its third celebration this year.
The Victoria Pride Society and the Youth Council had an easy time shifting online.
“Our youth council had an idea of the types of topics that they would like to see at the events,” said Luney. “Through resourcing and the community itself we just sent messages to presenters, performers, [and] people who are skilled in their different crafts.”
“Most people were very excited to be a part of that.”
Due to the pandemic, Victoria’s Youth Pride Week was hosted entirely online over Zoom. It featured events like a Black Trans History talk, a Queer Witchcraft presentation, virtual games nights, a crafting session, and a presentation on Politics and the World by local NDP MP Randall Garrison.
This shift to online has also had some unexpected benefits.
In a pre-COVID summer, Pride events would have occurred in person all over the Island, but there is very little interregional public transit to connect people. Those who need to get from the western regions of the Island to Victoria have to depend on coach buses or cars.
To get from Nanaimo to Victoria, the only way to commute using public transit is an eight-and-a-half-hour trip, including two ferries, which includes travelling across the ocean to the mainland and turning right back around on a ferry to Victoria. Accessing private bus services to travel across the island can be expensive for longer trips, especially for youth.
For the northern communities of the Island, there is no bus service. This makes it particularly difficult for youth who are unable to drive, and may have to depend on LGBTQ2S+ positive friends and family for rides to Pride events.
For young Islanders who aren’t ‘out’ about their LGBTQ2S+ identity and don’t have access to transport, it’s nearly impossible to attend Pride events in secret.
As a result of COVID-19, the ability to discreetly access Pride events online can make participating in the local LGBTQ2S+ community—and learning about local resources—more accessible for youth.
“As a youth in high school, I didn’t have the opportunity to even hear about sexual identity and sex education,” said Luney. “It’s just not in [the] curriculum.”
“[Online pride events are] a great opportunity for people to access these resources, while keeping their anonymity.”
Accessing Pride events and societies is critical for youth on Vancouver Island, as it can help them see themselves reflected in their communities.
“Coming from a very small town […] I didn’t have the resources, I didn’t have a connection, I didn’t know people who were out,” Luney said. “I didn’t even know where to begin to look for them.”
The Victoria Pride Society is looking to continue putting Pride events online in the future, after members saw how increased digital access impacted younger community members in remote areas.
“Next year, if we end up able to meet in physical groups again, our hope and plan […] for all of our events in general, is that we will always be recording them and being able to put them online for people to access no matter where they are,” Luney said.
By watching their favourite local Pride celebrations online again and again, youth on the Island can feel affirmed and connected to their wider community.
While it remains uncertain when LGBTQ2S+ Islanders will be able to gather in person to celebrate their community again, hope can be found in the little commemorations that continue across Vancouver Island, accessible from small-town teenagers’ screens.