Canadian heritage exhibition of pride

School project reminder of how far society has advanced


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It was easy to spot Alyssa Richard.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/01/2016 (2411 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was easy to spot Alyssa Richard.

She was the one with the flowing rainbow cape billowing brightly around her as she stood before a white backboard at the Red River Heritage Fair proclaiming to all the world she is a member of the LGBT community.

The Grade 8 student had come all the way from Flin Flon to display her personal pride in Canadian heritage.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS École McIsaac School student Alyssa Richard's history project is on LGBT history.

Gutsy doesn’t begin to cover it.

“I have come out to my class, to all the junior high students. Only one person said it’s not right. Whatever,” she said with a shrug during an interview at the Duckworth Centre on the University of Winnipeg campus.

“I am part of the LGBT community — I wanted something close to me,” Alyssa said of her entry in the Red River Heritage Fair for student history projects: the history of gay rights. “Why not write about my rights?

“People think it happened so long ago.”

Indeed, they do.

There was a time, as Alyssa chronicled, when it was illegal to be homosexual in Canada. Homosexuals were institutionalized and faced legal persecution, prosecution and discrimination.

It was only in 1999, just before Alyssa was born, that a majority of Winnipeg School Division trustees, led by Kristine Barr, implemented the anti-homophobia education plan in the face of widespread opposition, some of it openly hateful.

That anti-homophobia education plan is now a basic part of the school system in the division, and it appears the world has not ended because of it.

It’s only in the last couple of years, under Bill 18, that high school students in a Manitoba school receiving public funding who tell the principal they want to form a gay-straight alliance must be accommodated and supported.

Alyssa said there is not a lot of overt homophobia in Flin Flon. But, she cautioned, transgender people don’t have as many rights as the rest of the LGBT community, and there are still people opposed to rights achieved only a few years ago.

“I have a lot of friends from the U.S.,” whom she talked to as part of the project’s background, and they’re amazed at how far we’ve come, said Alyssa.

Last fall, both the WSD and the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association established policies to protect transgender rights. But the family of transgender student Bella Burgos, who was eight at the time a parent at Joseph Teres School in Transcona bullied her at school, is still taking her human rights complaint to a hearing of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Alyssa said she was aware there were no LGBT rights and there was open discrimination at the time that most of the historic events heralded throughout the heritage fair had been taking place.

Alyssa sported a white T-shirt that bore the names of fellow students and teachers in Flin Flon who support LGBT rights.

Nevertheless, one of the veteran social studies teachers who has organized the heritage fair through its 12 years chastised me for interviewing Alyssa, told me Alyssa had not done a topic that qualified as a heritage project and urged me strongly to instead interview a child who’d done a project on the Titanic.

I’ve known the leadership of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society for quite a while, and I think they’d agree Alyssa ranks as a sharp and courageous historian and research scholar, and LGBT rights are a significant part of our heritage.

Homophobia was part of my Canadian heritage, homophobia was my Prince Edward Island mother’s and grandparents’ Canadian heritage — but thanks to young people such as Alyssa, our heritage going forward will see LGBT Canadians as just another natural and ordinary part of the diverse mosaic.

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