Fifty years since homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, local pride groups say the Elk Valley is more accepting than ever before.
On May 14, the LGBTQ community and Fernie Pride Society met in Rotary Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bill C-150. They were joined by members of the Elk Valley RCMP, who supported them in this celebration.
“It’s important, especially in small towns, to recognize that we can get together and celebrate a big, huge milestone like this,” said Sparwood woman Melissa Creelman.
Creelman and her partner were one of very few openly-homosexual couples in Sparwood when they moved to the Valley 20 years ago. She recalled the town being a much different place than it is today.
“In the beginning there was a bit of trouble, we had to deal with some stuff,” she said. “But I think [it stopped] once we just said hey, this is who we are. Because we were big community people we just jumped in there full feet and I think they realized, ‘oh, these girls – there’s nothing wrong with them’.
“I think what we’ve done has really helped to educate this Valley to be more accepting and open, and also for them – do you know who your neighbour is? Do you know and does it matter? It has changed progressively like that.”
In the late 1990s, Creelman’s partner was one of the first to receive same-sex benefits from Teck Coal after winning a case in the Supreme Court. Creelman believes this is one of the reasons the mining company is so accepting of same-sex employees now.
“From what I’ve seen, the Valley has changed tremendously,” she said.
“My partner and I, we were just in your face, this is who we are. And (we were) out in the community a lot.”
In her role as school liaison for gender identity with the School District, Creelman tries to ensure that Ecole Isabella Dicken Elementary School is an inclusive environment for youth. Creelman previously worked in a similar position with the schools in Sparwood.
She said that in small towns, it’s sometimes hard for people who identify as LGBTQ to feel included, and Creelman encouraged those people to seek out and join their local pride society. She stressed that they are always open to new members and will help support them through any challenges.
“People have to be educated and realize everybody should be included in everything,” said Creelman.
She believes that an educated community is a more inclusive one and overall a better place for everyone.
Sara Funk, alongside Kevin Allen, founded the Fernie Pride Society in December 2016 because they saw that the LGBTQ community in the Elk Valley was living under the radar.
“When we opened our doors so to speak, there was an outpouring of need,” said Funk.
“A lot of people had been waiting a long time for our services, and not just people in the community but local business owners wanting education for their staff and schools wanting education for their classes. It’s been wonderful but it’s been busy.”
Now, two and a half years later, Pride is more visible in the area than ever before. Funk says she hopes that this has changed hearts and minds. Now, she said, if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, you can look around Fernie and see yourself in the town, whereas before you could not.
On the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality, Funk looked to the next 50 years.
Even though they have legal protections in Canada, she says it’s now time to change the underlying culture.
“There are businesses that can still fire people who are gay in the workplace. They can’t legally do it but maybe it’s part of their culture and they do it in a different way,” she said.
“Now we have the laws in our favour and now we need to change the underlying culture that still remains.”
Funk has hope for the next generation.
“Working with young people, teenagers specifically, they just think so differently about the world and about their sexuality, and their gender identity and expression,” said Funk. “I do think to some degree that they’re the ones who are going to come up and, I hate to say the word… but ‘normalize’ it.”
She stressed that she knows many older people who are supportive of the LGBTQ community, but added that she believes the biggest shift will come from the youth of today.
The Fernie Pride Society’s main objective is to connect people in the Elk Valley. Half of their board of directors is from Sparwood, and they are currently working to reach out and form partnerships in Elkford as well. To learn more, visit Ferniepride.ca.