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Taking Pride to Manitoba's north

Gay-rights festival expands beyond Winnipeg

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PRIDE Winnipeg, the city's colourful gay-rights festival, is expanding beyond the city -- first to Thompson and eventually into the heart of Manitoba's most conservative corner.

Pride Winnipeg president Jonathan Niemczak said work is underway on a first-ever Pride event in Thompson in June.

That expansion coupled with the latent homophobia unleashed by the NDP's anti-bullying bill last year made the local committee consider cultivating a Pride festival in Steinbach, Morris or Morden-Winkler in the coming years.

"Bill 18 really did show a remarkable amount of hidden homophobia that we honestly didn't think was still around," said Niemczak.

He said a Pride festival in southern Manitoba could help support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of smaller towns who may not have access to a big network. And a public festival could dampen homophobia by helping southern Manitoba see LGBT people as everyday neighbours, he said.

Thompson's one-day event, which is meant to reach out to all of northern Manitoba, is called Pride North of 55. It's slated for June 28, and will feature a family-friendly mini-festival in MacLean Park with a social that night in a local church hall.

"We've had zero opposition so far," said chairwoman Michelle Smook. "It's been very well-received."

The idea for a Pride festival in Thompson grew from a conversation Smook had with a Winnipeg board member and former Thompsonite.

Smook and her northern organizers were able to draw on Winnipeg Pride for administrative and planning help, and earned support from Thompson's politicians, including councillors and NDP MP Niki Ashton.

Next year, Pride Winnipeg hopes to begin working with gay activists in Brandon to share the load on some administrative functions and help that city's small Pride festival expand.

After that, Niemczak said Pride Winnipeg will begin mining its contacts in southern Manitoba to see if there's any interest in launching Pride events there.

If someone from southern Manitoba comes forward and asks for help, the Winnipeg volunteers will jump into action, he added.

Bill 18, which passed last fall, included a clause that requires schools to accommodate students who want to start gay-straight alliances. Critics, many of whom spoke at several committee hearings on the bill, said it infringes on religious freedom and imposed a "homosexual agenda" on students. At least two municipal councils and several churches called on the provincial government to rethink the legislation.

Niemczak said future Pride events in southern Manitoba would reflect the community and the ideas of local organizers.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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