News / Vancouver

Vancouver LGBT refugee group quits Pride over uniformed cops

Despite Vancouver Pride Society deal cutting number of police in uniform, Rainbow Refugee says 'deep fear and mistrust' remain.

Members of Rainbow Refugee march in Vancouver Pride parade in July 2016. The 2017 march will be the first they haven't marched in for 10 years.

Supplied/Facebook/Rainbow Refugee

Members of Rainbow Refugee march in Vancouver Pride parade in July 2016. The 2017 march will be the first they haven't marched in for 10 years.

As Vancouver's Pride week begins, for the first time in 10 years the city's gay refugee sponsorship group won't be marching in the annual Pride parade that's a cornerstone of events.

With just one week remaining until the massive LGBTQ parade, the Rainbow Refugee announced it would be pulling out of the offical parade on Sunday, Aug. 6 because of members who felt "unsafe" around uniformed police officers participating in the event.

"We will not be walking the parade this year," the organization's chair, Sharalyn Jordan, said in a Facebook post on the group's page Friday. "… Rainbow Refugee members deeply value that many of us are generally much safer in Vancouver and that our rights are legally protected. Some members were impressed and reassured when seeing Vancouver Police walking in Pride.

"… Other members have also expressed deep fear and mistrust of police. Police forces across Canada have not adequately addressed systemic racism, discrimination and abuse."

It's just the latest hiccup in a simmering controversy over including police departments that's divided the queer community — not only locally, but also at Pride events across Canada and the U.S.

Toronto Pride, for instance, barred police from marching as part of Canada's largest Pride parade this year, after last year's event saw LGBTQ members of Black Lives Matter Toronto stage a sit-in on the march route over the presence of police they accused of racial profiling or systemic discrimination against people of colour.

But in Vancouver, where the police department has long joined Pride events, some in the gay community defended uniformed officers marching — arguing that the LGBTQ community had spent decades cultivating a more positive relationship with police and that the conditions for racial minorities were not the same as in Toronto or U.S. cities where the Black Lives Matter movement exploded over police abuses in the last year.

"Vancouver’s LGBTQ community has a long history of positive engagement with the Vancouver Police Department," stated a petition in favour of police participation, which has garnered nearly 3,000 signatures. "… The visible involvement of the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP in the parade, which dates back to 2002, signifies the progress we have made in our struggle for LGBTQ equality."

A Vancouver police officer enjoys Vancouver Pride Parade festivities, but controversy has again arisen over whether the force's presence makes more marginalized groups feel unsafe there — or whether it's a sign of the LGBTQ community's progress.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A Vancouver police officer enjoys Vancouver Pride Parade festivities, but controversy has again arisen over whether the force's presence makes more marginalized groups feel unsafe there — or whether it's a sign of the LGBTQ community's progress.

However, Black Lives Matter (BLM) Vancouver countered that police forces in B.C. also have a history of discrimination, and that they did not feel safe marching alongside officers.

"If you’re not black, you don’t know anti-blackness," said BLM organizer Cicely-Belle Blaine in a video the group released in February. "… A lot of people criticizing BLM are saying 'but the police are here to serve and protect' — but they don’t protect black people."

The controversy sparked Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) launching consultations in its community and decided earlier this year that Vancouver police could march, but not with as many uniformed officers as in previous years — senior brass such as the Chief Constable could wear theirs, but four-in-five officers marching would wear t-shirts instead — and no military-style assault vehicles or marked squad cars.

The VPS later apologized to Black Lives Matter for threats and harassment they had experienced as a result of the debate.

"The Parade in 2017 needs to be different to make everyone feel safer, so we have made some suggestions," VPS wrote on Facebook in February. "These were inspired by Black Lives Matter Vancouver … as well as community consultations that have taken place over the past six months."

As one participant in the consultations, Rainbow Refugee said its own group was divided over police joining Pride, with some members celebrating that "many of us are generally much safer in Vancouver and that our rights are legally protected," adding that while "some members were impressed and reassured when seeing Vancouver Police walking in Pride," others felt the exact opposite upon seeing uniformed police, particularly those with negative police experiences in the past and those from marginalized backgrounds.

"When we participated in Vancouver Pride Society community consultations, we were clear that uniformed police walking in Pride was disturbing and felt unsafe for some of our members," Jordan wrote on Facebook. "… We raised alternatives to uniformed police taking part in the Pride march.

"We remain hopeful that next year these alternatives will be fully adopted, as our members have expressed a desire to march in the parade in the future — in a manner that respects the needs of the most marginalized."

It also said it would participate in other Pride events in the city, such as East Side Pride and this year's inaugural Human Rights Discussion event, and would help any of its members join other Pride contingents if they wished to march in the parade.

"Rainbow Refugee remains committed to Pride as a political movement that is both a protest and a celebration," she continued. "We will continue to participate in VPS’ efforts to make Vancouver Pride an event we can all embrace."

But not all Rainbow Refugee members or refugees agreed with the non-profit group's decision. One person, who identified themself as a former refugee and volunteer, said they were "disappointed" by the parade boycott.

"As a former refugee and someone who has spent many, many hours volunteering with Rainbow Refugee in the past, I must admit that I'm disappointed at this decision," wrote Charmian Leong in a Facebook comment on Rainbow Refugee's page. "I have always felt incredibly touched seeing the kind of support shown by police organizations during Pride Celebrations, which was something completely unheard of in many of the countries your members (including myself) come from

"… I'm not saying that there isn't more work to be done, but things are in no way as bad as what the anti-police crowd is saying either."

The VPS- and Canadian International Council-sponsored 'Welcome to Vancouver' Human Rights Discussion panel — in which Rainbow Refugee is participating and will receive some proceeds from the $20 tickets — is planned for 5-7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 3. It will "highlight the personal stories of LGBTQ2+ refugees that have made Vancouver their home and their harrowing stories of courage, strength and survival," the VPS stated in an online posting.

More information about Vancouver Pride Week events is available online.

More on Metronews.ca