TORONTO — Rainbow smoke swirled around members of Black Lives Matter Sunday at an intersection in Toronto. The group, which advocates for vulnerable communities, had set off smoke grenades in the midst of the city’s Pride parade. Afterward, they staged a shutdown that stalled the march for 25 minutes.
“We are under attack,” yelled Alexandria Williams, a Black Lives Matter cofounder, after the smoke cleared, in comments reported by the Toronto Star. “Pride Toronto, we are calling you out for your anti-blackness, your anti-indigeneity."
The parade resumed when the executive director of Pride Toronto, Mathieu Chantelois, and the organization’s cochair Alicia Hall met with organizers and discussed their concerns. Afterward, the organizers signed an agreement to hire more trans employees and queer people of color, increase funding for events that support and showcase these communities, and eliminate police floats from future marches. And then, the show went on.
“I went to talk to them and had a very civilized conversation,” Chantelois told The Advocate. “All of the points they were making were really good points. I agreed right away. I gave some hugs. And I let them walk again. Sometimes, you forget to listen to marginalized communities. It took half an hour of time today, but that’s OK.”
From start to finish, this interaction is a model for what anyone could hope for a Pride — march, protest, listen, and make the world a little better than it was beforehand. This outcome was one of the reasons Pride Toronto made Black Lives Matter Toronto an honored group of the event. They had expected a protest and welcomed the results.
“When we picked Black Lives Matter, we knew that it’s because our organization and our city still have a lot of work to do for the black community,” Chantelois said. “We picked them because we want to do better. We want Toronto to do better. We want the world to do better.”
In the immediate wake of the shooting of the gay bar Pulse in Orlando, many LGBT people feared to attend Pride in their cities. That fear was largely absent from Pride in Toronto. In fact, the event is reporting a record number of attendees. Its Trans March alone boasted 11,000 participants, making it the largest of its kind.
Orlando also sparked a deluge of new sponsors and partners, as well as a phone call from Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who reaffirmed his commitment to march. And march he did, making history as the first in his position to do so. In a historic triumvirate, he was joined by Toronto mayor John Tory and out politician Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario. Their presence is meaningful for Canada’s LGBT community, because it showed a political support the likes of which the world has never seen.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) July 3, 2016
“People came out. People were not afraid,” Chantelois said. “It became for us a way to all come together in something solid, important, meaningful. It changed everything. I have tears in my eyes. It was what we had to do, and we did it.”
"We still have a lot of work to do as an ambassador around the world to show how amazing it is we live in so much diversity with so many people with different orientations and gender expressions," he added. "For me, today was about that, having a conversation with our prime minister where he’s taking us seriously, where we can talk about things and he listens. That’s even better than the parade."
Fear aside, Orlando was still on everyone’s mind. The event was dedicated to the victims, who were honored and remembered throughout. The march began with a banner that read, "Orlando: We march for those who can't." Marchers carrying signs that were bearing the name and age of each victim followed. A moment of silence also took place in their memory. Visibly, Pulse was imprinted on T-shirts, headbands, artworks, and gay bars. Police presence was also beefed up, after officers met with organizers to discuss security concerns.
“Orlando was in our mind. It was in our heart. It was in everything that we were doing. But it didn’t change anything,” said Chantelois, who said Pride’s end goals remained unaltered. “There’s no way that we’re going to shy from the place we should have in society. We proved this this weekend in a really beautiful way, by celebrating the power and the beauty of diversity and by being ourselves.”
The event also had star power to back its mission of inclusion. George Takei, Queer as Folk’s Randy Harrison, Looking’s Daniel Franzese, Rufus Wainwright, Tangerine’s Mya Taylor, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Kim Chi, and Bianca Del Rio were among those who participated in Pride events, which spanned the month of June and ranged from karakoe to human rights conferences. Even Lindsay Lohan Skyped into a screening of Mean Girls, which was filmed in Toronto.
Moreover, performers like the Prancing Elites, Alex Newell, and Joe Jonas all took the stage on Pride weekend. RuPaul, who accepted a last-minute invitation, was there too. The world’s most famous drag queen delivered an emotional speech, which reminded LGBT attendees of the renewed importance of Pride in the world today.
"This is your family. You’re welcome. Yes. Yes. You can sit with us," he said, a reference to the inclusive slogan of this year's Toronto celebration, "You can sit with us." He also offered this advice: "Get to know your brothers and sisters. Get to know some of the older queens and transgender people who have been this path. Do it right now. We’re all here for you."
Although RuPaul did not address Orlando by name, he spoke to the culture of fear that can create such acts of violence. He also offered a way to address it.
"A lot of people feel more comfortable with fear, and that’s unfortunate. And I want you all today, here in this beautiful square, to remember love, remember who you really are," he said.
"These freedoms that were hard-fought and won, they are fragile," he concluded. "In my lifetime, I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways. Make sure that you tell your story to your family, to your brothers and sisters here, so that we can continue this power, this love, and this experience for generations to come. I love you, and I’ll see you next time."
Beyond the LGBT community, Pride Toronto also tells straight allies that they, too, are welcome to sit with us, to have tough conversations like Sunday's exchange with Black Lives Matter, and to celebrate and create a better world.
"We should all sit together," Chantelois concluded. "Not just people in our community, but all of us. And not only sit together, obviously, but talk to each other. Dance with us. Sing with us. And that’s what we saw this weekend."