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Pride and police: a complex situation rooted in conflict

'Work with yourselves, among yourselves and then get back to us,' Guelph Pride chair Bella says to Guelph police
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Guelph Pride In The Park.

The Guelph Police Service says it hopes to foster positive relations and work together to “recognize and address past challenges and move forward” when it comes to Guelph Pride, while LGBTQ2IA+ community leaders say GPS needs to start by acknowledging and repairing harm.

The relationship is “hard to navigate,” said Barry Moore, chair of Guelph Pride’s parent organization, Out on the Shelf (OOTS) and capacity builder at HIV/AIDS Resources and Community Health (ARCH).

Const. Abigail Campbell, 2SLGBTQIA+ community liaison officer at GPS, prepared comments collaboratively with GPS’s media liaison Scott Tracey. GPS say they recognize “historical tensions displayed between police and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities globally,” and local activists say this history is essential.

Bella, the chair of Guelph Pride, director of OOTS, anti-oppression educator, and coordinator of Guelph Queer Equality and Queer and Trans People of Colour, said Pride has always been more than “celebrating identities, but also recognizing that we will push against systems that will cause us harm.”

It was “significant queer civil rights movement moments” like Stonewall, Operation Soap and the Cafeteria Riots, that were responses to “police brutality and ongoing discrimination, harassment and violence from police," adds Jasper Smith, manager of ARCH (HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health).

"We are here because of that history," adds Moore, adding that if not for Pride’s roots, they wouldn’t be able to do the work they do or exist in society as they do.

Pride in the Park was held in Guelph at Exhibition Park on June 11 as part of Guelph Pride celebrations, drawing a crowd with no visible police presence. Guelph Pride festivals are intentionally organized without any police presence. 

Bella said there’s too much harm happening for relationship-building.

They suggest people in law enforcement begin by looking into how their institutions help and harm queer and trans people. She said this includes disabled people, people with mental health issues, and sex workers, who are more likely to be LGBTQ2IA+.

“Look at where the potential for harm is and fix that,” Bella said.

Malissa Bryan, anti-oppression educator and former Guelph Pride co-chair, advises GPS “start with the truth” by acknowledging harm, listening to oppressed communities, and building trust step by step “with actions and equitable outcomes.”

Bryan suggests GPS work to dismantle institutional racism, homophobia and transphobia.

“Words are just not enough,” they said, “the work needs to be done.”

GPS say they’re “working hard to address the needs within our multicultural, BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities,” with community liaisons, mandatory gender analysis training, and the creation of in-house 2SLGBTQIA+ training.

In 2021, Campbell launched GPS’s Safe Space Sticker Program, which GPS say they discontinued due to ARCH and Guelph Pride’s concerns. GPS say they intended to help 2SLGBTQIA+ victims of crime by identifying participating businesses as safe places “who could contact the police on their behalf.”

In response, 38 community members gathered virtually to discuss, share information, and organize steps forward. These steps involved community outreach, media releases, and a list of demands to GPS.

The demands included cancelling the Safe Space Sticker program, removing the “Blue Lives Matter” flag from uniforms, increasing transparency and consultation, and redistributing funds.

Concerns included lack of community input, quality of training, the potential for harm (especially with contacting police without victims’ consent), and overlap with ARCH’s existing program.

Smith, who developed ARCH’s Voices of Value Training Program in 2013, said it was the community that alerted them to GPS’s Safe Space program. After collaborating with the community, ARCH met with GPS, advising they reconsider and redirect the funding to community resource organizations “already doing the work,” said Smith.

Kevin Sutton, the community resilience facilitator at the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, poet, and anti-oppression educator involved with Guelph Pride, said it’s a good sign GPS cancelled the program, but they have far to go.

“There’s no repair, and there’s very little listening,” Sutton said.

Sutton said a police presence in itself will always be considered violent: “there’s no way around that. I don’t think that will change going forward.”

Sutton points to police involvement at Toronto Pride, where that presence felt exclusionary and unsafe and that he believes it was refreshing when Black Lives Matter stalled the parade in 2016. That sit-in challenged anti-Blackness within Toronto Pride and involved a list of demands, including removing the Police float from future parades.

GPS say they are “committed to learning, growing and working towards a better future in partnership with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.”

Moore said GPS has a long road of work ahead for the community to feel safe but assures they “don’t just want to put up a wall.”

“Once we can see there's some chance we can be safe having this conversation, then we can have a conversation on how we can work together,” said Bella, “work with yourselves, among yourselves and then get back to us.”