The territories have long been at the forefront of LGBTQ rights. The Northwest Territories was the first jurisdiction in Canada to protect gender identity and gender expression in its human rights code (2002), while Yukon was one of the first to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (1987) and to recognize same-sex marriage (2004). The North has been a refuge for sexual minorities, especially for those seeking new lives and opportunities away from discrimination in other parts of Canada. Many Indigenous communities have also honoured the place of sexual diversity across the North, and Two-Spirit people have contributed significantly to the vibrancy of Canada’s LGBTQ communities.
Like other parts of this country, however, the North has also played its part in Canada’s darker history of persecuting sexual minorities. In 1965, Everett George Klippert, a Pine Point resident, was the last person in Canada to be sentenced to indefinite preventative detention for being a practicing — and unrepentant — homosexual.
But here too, Northerners demonstrated their leadership in standing up for the human rights and dignity of LGBTQ Canadians. Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories (now Western Arctic), Bud Orange, spoke in support of Klippert in a 1967 statement before the House of Commons, just days after the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed Klippert’s incarceration.
The Northwest Territories Archives has collected an impressive array of the letters and responses Orange received for his stance, which can be read on its website. One such letter-writer wrote:
It is almost beyond belief that in 1967 a male homosexual may be held in prison for an indefinite period of time, perhaps life, for acts transpiring in private between himself and other consenting adults (NWT Archives/N-1990-021).
As a result of the Klippert case, and through the support of brave politicians like Orange, Canada decriminalized homosexual activities between two consenting adults on June 27, 1969. Meanwhile, on the following day and over 5,000 kilometers from Pine Point, the modern gay rights movement was being born in New York City.
I am writing this editorial while sitting in New York’s Stonewall Inn — a small dark bar in Greenwich Village with an outsized place in history. It was here, 45 years ago, that the gay rights movement began. Tired of police harassment and, apocryphally, heart sick following the funeral of Judy Garland, the patrons of this bar rioted for three nights in late June, 1969. Led by drag queens, transgender and gay youth — many of them people of colour — the legacy of these three long nights of protest, outrage, and arrests reverberated across the continent, feeding calls for justice, liberation, and recognition for LGBTQ lives.
The modern institution of pride parades and parties commemorates these events, including those held in Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit this past summer. A continental movement, born in a riot.
Sitting here among the kitsch and memorabilia of struggles long past, I feel gratitude for the sacrifices others made to build the world we enjoy today. Despite the vast distances separating the events of Pine Point from those of Greenwich Village, they are united in the role they played in changing the lives of LGBTQ people everywhere. We need to honour these histories — along with the stand many Northerners took for Everett George Klippert and the risks taken here on a night in June — while documenting the work being done today, and recognizing what is left to be accomplished.
This issue of Northern Public Affairs features perspectives on LGBTQ life from across the North, including a speech given by the world’s first lesbian head of government, former Icelandic Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. We reproduce her speech before a plenary session of the WorldPride Human Rights Conference in Toronto this past June. The conference was attended by over 500 delegates from 52 countries, including several Northerners. Another inspiring first from the circumpolar North.
From Yukon, we have two articles on the lives of LGBTQ youth, including a piece by Bringing Youth Towards Equality’s Kara Johancsik. Liam Finnegan shares his experiences of coming out, the struggles of LGBTQ students in Northern Canada, and the support he received from the Whitehorse community.
From Nunavut, Kiyanna Drachenberg brings us a fictional letter written to a young man suffering from isolation and depression, and whose themes will resonate with the difficult experiences some youth still experience while grappling with their sexuality.
On the cultural front, Northern Canada’s long history as a refuge for sexual minorities has been a source of inspiration for many queer artists and writers, such as Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon. As our short story in this issue by Lori Garrison affirms, lesbians have had a particularly large cultural role to play in Yukon. Her story of love and loss in Dawson City is a beautiful affirmation of everything the North offers, and how lonely those vast distances can be when life falls apart.
Today, Northerners and Canadians can be proud of the country they have built. It is one where the relationships of gays and lesbians are recognized; where families of all sorts can form and flourish securely; where the human rights and dignity of our sexual and gender diversity is protected and affirmed. The North played its part in these struggles, and should be proud of the result.
We hope to bring you more articles and stories like these in future issues. With this year’s Pride behind us, we at Northern Public Affairs are celebrating the place of LGBTQ people in Canada’s North and wishing us all many happy Prides to come.◉