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date: 13 June 2024

Canada’s LGBT Movement and Interest Groupsfree

Canada’s LGBT Movement and Interest Groupsfree

  • David RaysideDavid RaysideDepartment of Political Science, University of Toronto


The Canadian LGBT movement has had enormous success in gaining political and legal recognition for sexual minorities—as much as any of its sister movements in other countries. This is especially remarkable because the sexual repressiveness of the Canadian social and political climate remained largely in place until the 1990s. And although activist groups across the country have had challenges in marshalling resources, mobilizing beyond the regional level, and overcoming internal inequities, advocacy pressure has been effective enough to produce a political sea change with few precedents in other issue areas. Starting in the 1990s, Canada experienced a country-wide “takeoff” in the formal recognition of sexual diversity, most dramatically in the legal status given to same-sex relationships. Even if a vocal minority of the general public opposed such moves, the acceptance of sexual minorities as legitimate members of the Canadian mosaic has become politically normalized.

Sexual diversity is far from being fully accepted, and those communities traditionally under-represented in the LGBT movement still face marginalization in a period of growing socioeconomic inequality. But the movement has made impressive gains, aided by social and institutional factors that have allowed activist leverage when the political winds blew in their favor. This success, however, presents new challenges, creating complacency within and beyond LGBT circles and increasing the difficulty of mobilizing people and resources.

The decline of religiously conservative opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity in Canada has also created room for the movement to become more fragmented than it has been in the past. And yet there is still much need for advocacy. Socially conservative politicians are still pandering to public anxiety about recognizing sexual diversity. Activist attention is still needed in areas such as schooling, policing, social service provision, and immigration. Trans people, “two-spirited” Indigenous people, and sexual minorities within Canada’s large ethnocultural and religious minorities are often on the margins of their own communities, the broader society, and the LGBT movement itself.

From the early 1970s through the mid-2000s, the Canadian movement’s trajectory was similar to activism elsewhere. A “liberationist” period generated a long-lasting strand of radicalism alongside a slowly growing current focused on seeking rights through mainstream political channels (Adam, 1987, 1999). The analysis to follow first points to distinctive elements of the Canadian social and political context and then traces the evolution of what would become the LGBT movement from these early stages and into a period of legal and political “takeoff.” It points to strong commonalities in movement agendas, even across imposing regional lines, but also recognizes the challenges of mounting coherent movement responses to remaining inequities in a political environment so marked by activist success.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • Political Sociology
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary

The Canadian Context

Features of the Canadian social and political environment have boosted activist effectiveness, but it was not always so. In the late 1940s, regular attendance at religious services was much higher than the average in the industrialized world, and within the political arena there were basically no voices calling for reform in moral policies shaped by conservative religious values (Noll, 2007). Starting in the 1960s, rapid secularization set in, much in line with developments through much of Western Europe. Weekly attendance at religious services eventually declined to less than 15%, and among francophone Catholics to less than 10%. Evangelical Protestants, most often in the vanguard of antigay protests, have been a visible presence in Canadian political life, but they are much less influential than their American cousins, constituting less than 10% of the overall population (Malloy, 2011).

Canadian immigration patterns since the 1960s might have refueled religious conservatism, as most newcomers come from parts of the world where traditionalist gender and sexual norms still hold sway, but this seems not to have slowed the overall popular shift toward pro-LGBT beliefs. Moral conservatism is not disproportionately strong in many immigrant communities, and among those in which it is pronounced it has not translated into significant shifts toward conservative political parties (Cochrane, 2013; Rayside, Sabin, & Thomas, 2017).1

In fact, large-scale and broadly accepted immigration to Canada has helped cement the idea of diversity into the Canadian political identity structure, though not always in Quebec. It became possible, in such an environment, to treat the inclusion of sexual minorities as part of a larger pattern of inclusiveness. At times this has led Canadians to believe that their society is more accepting than it is, though this in turn has helped delegitimize explicitly homophobic political discourse.

LGBT activists have benefited from a comparatively supportive labor movement, which was a significant player in launching expensive court challenges (Adam, 1999; Hunt, 1999). Individual unions, mostly in the public sector, began supporting lesbian and gay claims in the 1980s, and in the next decade a good part of the overall labor movement was assertively backing the LGBT cause and soon taking on issues of gender identity as well as sexual orientation. Canadian unions have been more influential and generally less socially conservative than their American counterparts and not as bound to traditional (and masculinist) working-class culture as many of their powerful European counterparts.

The presence of social democratic parties relatively open to the influence of social movement activism from the 1960s on has also helped. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has been an influential player in several provinces, and although never a serious contender for power at the federal level, it has prodded governments in progressive policy directions. The NDP was not immediately a forceful LGBT ally, but it has almost invariably been the first party to become so whenever LGBT issues have been raised. In Quebec the Parti Québécois has at times played a similar role.

Another factor that opened up significant opportunities for LGBT activists was the 1982 constitutional entrenchment of a newly drafted Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Smith, 2008). It did not explicitly include sexual minorities, but its crucial equality rights clauses (Section 15) were sufficiently open-ended that the courts would later rule that it effectively did prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and, eventually, gender identity.

Activist work has also been facilitated by two features of Canadian law. First, the fact that there is only a single criminal code meant that when partial decriminalization was secured in 1969, it applied across the country. (Discriminatory elements remained, for example, in a higher age of consent for homosexual activity, though most of these were struck down by court rulings in later decades.) Second, over the postwar period, common law and legislation moved incrementally toward significant formal recognition of cohabiting heterosexual relationships.2 This is important because much of what same-sex couples sought in the formal recognition of their relationships and of their rights to parent could be secured by challenging discriminatory treatment in comparison to unmarried straight couples. This effectively postponed engagement with the politically and religiously loaded question of marriage—an issue that also had much potential for broadening anti-gay mobilization and dividing the LGBT movement.

If activists have benefitted from these factors, they have also faced challenges in acquiring the resources essential for stable growth. AIDS-related groups have had access to state funding, and that has been especially important for those groups that have mobilized in ethnocultural minorities and Indigenous communities. Major events like Pride and film festivals ultimately secured project-specific funding from all levels of government. But stable organizational funding for broad-gauged advocacy is much less available, with Quebec a partial exception, so that political organizing has depended to an extraordinary degree on volunteer labor. This has prevented the kind of institutionalization that in other countries has enabled the creation of capacity for routine intervention in mainstream politics.

Much of what activists have championed has required mobilizing in 10 quite distinctive provincial arenas, 3 territories, and at the federal level. The comparative decentralization of the Canadian federation gives regional governments jurisdiction over many areas related to sexuality and gender, with local governments also playing important roles. This has provided opportunities for early political gains in parts of the country where favorable opportunities have presented themselves. For example, if a left or center-left provincial party wins office, significant access may open up to LGBT activists. If they then succeed in convincing a government to introduce inclusive legislation, the power that Canadian party discipline vests in government leaders can greatly increase the chances of passage.

On the other hand, governments led by parties antithetical to LGBT rights can lock out social movement activists, who then have almost no recourse other than courts. And the regional fissures in Canada, particularly with respect to Quebec, impede movement solidarity across provincial and territorial lines. Gains in one provincial jurisdiction have provided leverage to activists elsewhere, but regionalism is a sufficiently strong force that advocates have at times been unaware of important developments in other places.

The overall impact of these contextual factors is an LGBT movement that has often been only moderately resourced and very fragmented, making any account of its emergence and evolution a complex one. It is also a movement that has been skillful at taking advantage of political and constitutional opportunities, and able to mobilize substantial community energy at moments of crisis.

The Early Decades

Canadian cities did not see the kind of early waves of sexual minority advocacy that we find in Germany and parts of Europe in the early 20th century and in the United States during the decade and a half after World War II. During the interwar period there was also little evidence of the kind of bar scene with strong lesbian or gay clientele that emerged in other countries. There was a brief exception to comparative invisibility in Montreal after World War I, when two anglophone women in Montreal established Les Mouches Fantastiques, an underground magazine that provided an outlet for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction during its two years of existence.

World War II was a modest turning point in Canada, though less important than in several European and American cities. There were opportunities for same-sex activity in the military units sent overseas in that conflict, contributing to the formation of social networks after the war (Jackson, 2004). Bars and other meeting spaces emerged more visibly in Montreal and Toronto, among them working-class bars drawing a lesbian crowd (Chamberland, 1993, 1996; Chenier, 2004; Demczuk & Remiggi, 1998). These were frequently subject to police harassment, and Canada experienced a version of the McCarthyite attack on homosexuality as damaging to societal morals and a threat to national security (Kinsman & Gentile, 2011). However, such attacks highlighted the existence of sexual diversity, and of the places where “deviants” would meet, even if they suppressed activism.

The early and middle 1960s produced a wave of political mobilization across a number of social movements in Canada, as they also did elsewhere in the world. Gay and lesbian activism, however, would emerge only slowly and sporadically. In 1964, Vancouver activists established the Association for Social Knowledge (ASK), providing social support and political advocacy over the next five years (McLeod, 1996, 2003). Also in 1964, the magazine Gay began publishing in Toronto, and during its brief existence it developed a substantial North American audience. Religious reformism calling for change in theological response to sexual diversity was spreading during this time, exemplified in the 1965 formation of the Canadian Council on Religion and the Homosexual.

Cultural production featuring positive portrayals of sexual difference was proliferating, including novels by Jane Rule and Marie-Claire Blais and the plays of Michel Tremblay. And by this time, geographic clusters of commercial establishments—bars in particular—were forming in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver (Warner, 2002, pp. 52–53). This helped broaden a sense of identity even among those who would never enter such places, laying the groundwork for expanded activism.

1969–1975: Gay Liberation and Lesbian Feminism

Much changed after 1969. One reason was the passage of federal legislation partially decriminalizing homosexuality and abortion, modeled on British legislation already enacted (Adam, 1987; Kinsman, 1996). Whatever the limitations in the legislation, and however determined police forces were to continue treating homosexuals as criminal, this eased the formation of advocacy groups. The second factor making this year a turning point was the dramatic surge of radical activism in the United States and Europe following New York’s Stonewall riots in June.

Later that year, the University of Toronto Homophile Association became the first enduring group informed by “gay liberation”(Warner, 2002).3 Within two years, similar groups formed on campuses and in cities across the country, including Vancouver, Saskatoon, London, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, Winnipeg, and Montreal. The character of gay liberation was not much different from that of the United States and those parts of Europe where it had emerged, though with a smaller-scale surge of activist energy than in major cities elsewhere.

It is common to describe the Canadian LGBT movement in this period as torn between radical liberationism and equality-seeking assimilationism, but the reality on the ground is more complex. The most committed of the former came to recognize that highly public campaigns asserting the legitimacy of rights claims had the potential of mobilizing a broad constituency, creating a profile in the media and within the general public. Even those most skeptical of the impact of change in formal law realized the broader sociopolitical impact that such campaigns could have.

As in other countries, radical liberationism represented a wide range of analytical approaches. Many activists sought the sexual liberation of everyone and rejected the notion of a categorical distinction between gay and straight (Knegt, 2011; Warner, 2002). But as Tim McCaskell puts it, there were, from the outset, “down-to-earth” activists who focused on building the political strength and cultural vitality of distinguishable gay and lesbian constituencies (McCaskell, 2016, p. 456). There were also significant differences of view between those who rejected mainstream political channels as incapable of delivering transformative change, and others who campaigned for civil rights very much within existing legal and political frameworks. Feminism was an important analytical framework for most lesbians in the movement, but also for many men, while others argued that feminist advocacy was entirely distinct from and at times antithetical to gay liberation.

One illustration of heterogeneity, even among those fully informed by radical approaches, was the first protest march on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1971, an early milestone of the newly energized movement, organized largely by self-identified adherents to gay liberation. The political agenda articulated in that march included calls for the abolition of the gross indecency law, so often used by police to raid community institutions or entrap individuals, but also demands for an end to discrimination in respect to criminal justice, immigration, and employment in general, including the Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Adam, 1999; Knegt, 2011, pp. 34–35). In 1975, the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario was established by activists proudly wearing the liberationist label, but focused, through much of the group’s mandate, on securing formal rights protections in provincial human rights law (Warner, 2002). Such examples muddle the characterization of the Canadian movement as moving from radical liberationism to mainstream rights claims.

Among the groups that combined radical ideas and a focus on the rights of a definable gay and lesbian minority was Vancouver’s Gay Alliance Toward Equality, which launched a formal challenge to the Vancouver Sun’s refusal to print one of its ads soon after its formation in 1971, eventually securing a victory in the Supreme Court of Canada (Gay Alliance Toward Equality v. Vancouver Sun, 1979). Gays of Ottawa, founded in 1971, represented a similar blend and ended up as one of the country’s most enduring centers of activism.

During this time there was no sustained group with a plausible claim to representing sexual minorities across the country. In 1972 and 1974, National Gay Election Coalitions were established with a mandate to raise sexuality issues with federal candidates. The National Gay Rights Coalition (later the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition) was established in 1975, though its half decade of existence was marked by the scarcity of resources and the recurrence of conflict across gender lines, strategy, and political ideology. It was especially difficult for any cross-Canada network to fully include francophone Quebec activists, the vast majority of whom saw themselves as part of the nation-building project in Quebec, and were wary of anglophone dominance and justifiably suspicious of groups claiming bilingual capacity without delivering it.

Of the community newspapers that were shaped by the radical politics of this period, only The Body Politic (established in 1971) developed something of a cross-country profile (and an international readership). However, even if it devoted much print space to political developments outside its home base, it was unmistakably a product of Toronto’s activist and cultural scene (Jackson & Persky, 1982). Bookstores such as Toronto’s Glad Day and Montreal’s Androgyny were established in 1971 and 1972, and constituted vital regional activist hubs alongside the political newspapers and magazines that sprouted in every significant Canadian city. In 1983, they were joined by Vancouver’s Little Sisters, which then became a centerpiece of opposition to state-sponsored censorship of LGBT materials brought in from the United States. Alongside these were activist groups that created phone lines, self-help groups, community dances, “imperial” drag courts, and sporting teams, routinely attracting interest far beyond the still quite small clusters of political advocates, and helped build a sense of community. Canada’s first gay pride events were held in Toronto and Vancouver in 1972, though in those cities and elsewhere several years would pass before they were firmly established as annual events.

Lesbian and gay faith communities also emerged in this period, emboldened by the militancy of the explicitly political movement. In the early 1970s, such groups were formed by Unitarians, Catholics, Anglicans, members of the United Church, and Jews. In addition, Canadian branches of the American-born Metropolitan Community Church, based largely on lesbian and gay congregations, were established in Toronto and Montreal in 1973, and soon after in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Ottawa.

As was true in other countries, lesbians were very much under-represented in liberationist groups. They also encountered resistance in feminist circles, and their experience in these early years was a largely unhappy one (Warner, 2002, pp. 77–80). Starting in the early 1970s, autonomous lesbian groups or housing cooperatives appeared in cities across the country, as did lesbian caucuses of male-dominated organizations in the large cities (Demczuk & Remiggi, 1998; Stone, 1990; Ross, 1995). People of color were under-represented in these activist formations and in the larger array of lesbian/gay cultural and political networks. Canada’s racial demography was changing rapidly as a result of changing immigration rules in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was little sense of that in social movement advocacy.

1975–1984: Expanded Mobilization in the Face of Antigay Attacks

Most of the groups formed in the first wave of liberationist activism had only a short life, and those that endured, like Gays of Ottawa, Gays for Equality in Winnipeg, and Gay Alliance for Equality in Halifax, came to rely on only small handfuls of volunteers (Warner, 2002, pp. 159–160). However, this was also a time of dramatic pushback from politicians and police forces, reviving and expanding activist mobilization in cities like Montreal and Toronto.

State Repressiveness

In Montreal, local authorities’ determination to “clean up” the city produced major police attacks on gay institutions, starting in 1975 and culminating in a massive 1977 arrest of almost 150 men at the Truxx bar (Tremblay, 2015a). The Association pour les droits des gai(e)s du Québec (ADGQ) was formed in 1976, and after the Truxx arrests it grew into a formidable center of activism, organizing the largest street demonstration to that point in Canada (Tremblay, 2015a). It also activated connections to the Parti Québécois government that led to the addition of sexual orientation to the province’s still-new human rights charter in late 1977, long before such a step was taken in any other province or territory.

In Toronto, police raided bathhouses in 1978 and 1979, and it was at this time that local evangelical Christians began mobilizing anti-gay sentiment, inviting Anita Bryant to speak in the city soon after her successful campaign to reverse civil rights protections in Miami. It was also during this period that censorship-focused raids and prosecutions were targeting The Body Politic. The 1980 city election saw the victory of a candidate who attacked “San Francisco-style gay power politics,” and one year later the local school board banned “proselytizing” homosexuality (Warner, 2002, p. 139).

In 1981, the largest police action against gay institutions to that point in Canada was launched against a cluster of gay bathhouses in Toronto, with 300 people arrested in one violent night. Much like the ADGQ after the 1977 Truxx raid in Montreal, the Right to Privacy Committee (RTPC) in Toronto effectively marshaled anger but also helped cement a broad range of alliances with other lesbian/gay groups, civil liberties advocates, ethno-racial minority communities, labor unions, and reformist politicians. The RTPC mixed a confrontational approach much shaped by liberationist views of state regulation with a pragmatic response that marshaled unprecedented legal resources to support the men arrested. This produced an extraordinarily high acquittal rate in court, representing the LGBT movement’s most significant defeat of policing tactics to that point.

This was also a period of rapid growth of community networks and institutions, and a highly visible expansion of gay commercial and residential concentrations in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley area, as well as in Vancouver’s West End and Montreal’s Village de l’est. (The latter was tellingly shifted from an anglophone-dominated part of the city center to a francophone area east of the downtown core.) If there had once been skepticism about the political value of such zones, the majority of activists now saw the mobilizational potential of the networks and community hubs formed by these geographic zones.

The Allure of Constitutional Rights

Activists steeped in the gay liberation and lesbian feminism of the 1970s were still influential in the movement of the early 1980s, but there was also widespread commitment to securing formal rights protections. For the more radical currents of the movement, demanding rights was only a small part of the overall struggle for social and political transformation but would help in mobilizing communities and challenging traditional public beliefs. Those who came from more reformist perspectives were more thoroughly committed to the fight for legal rights, though most had no illusions that such rights would in themselves create full inclusion.

The rights focus was intensified with the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (Smith, 2008). Prior to that, in a political system governed by notions of parliamentary sovereignty, it was difficult to persuade courts to overturn the acts of federal and provincial governments. The new Charter’s constitutional entrenchment changed that and drew social movements in general to using litigation as a political lever—an idea that had previously been much more appealing in the American system than the Canadian.

Movement Proliferation

At the same time, lesbian and gay networks were growing within political parties, most prominently in the New Democratic Party and the Parti Québécois but also within federal and provincial Liberal parties. Support groups were being formed in public sector workplaces and corporate workplaces, of which IBM was among the first in Canada. Organizing within the labor movement had begun in the 1970s, and now lesbian/gay groups were gaining official support from a growing number of unions and the Canadian Labour Congress—an umbrella group (Hunt & Eaton, 2007).

In this period of rapidly proliferating movement activism, gender issues remained largely unresolved. The prominence of police attacks on institutions frequented largely by gay men (like bathhouses and bars) reinforced the pattern of male dominance in advocacy networks. There were also divisions among activists over pornography, most male activists resisting attacks on or regulations of sexual representation, and many lesbians (certainly not all) drawn to feminist mobilizing against the misogynist oppressiveness of porn. These conflicts intensified later on in the 1980s as the courts and the federal government developed frameworks for regulating sexual material ostensibly informed by feminist arguments, though eventually the warfare over pornography within lesbian and gay advocacy networks abated as more evidence accumulated that new rules were just as discriminatory toward LGBT material as the old ones (Cossman, Bell, Gotell, & Ross, 1997).

There were relatively early examples of groups struggling to achieve a gender balance in political perspective and activist demographics. Gays of Ottawa required gender parity in its board from 1982 on. The Toronto-based group that published the magazine Pink Ink (in 1983) and Rites (from 1984 on) worked hard at incorporating lesbian voices and perspectives. The idea of creating separate lesbian groups was given an important boost by a large 1976 conference on lesbian perspectives on the gay movement that drew lesbian activists from across the country (Warner, 2002, pp. 178–179)

The Canadian movement had still done little to confront issues of race, though autonomous group formation among sexual minorities of color had begun. Gay Asians Toronto was formed in 1979 and remained a strong presence for years. Vancouver was also home to a large East Asian community with a long history in the city, and out of that came Gay Asians, established in the mid-1980s. In 1984, Zami was established in Toronto to represent black and West Indian lesbians and gay men, and in the same year Lesbians of Colour emerged as an echo of the same pattern of gender separation that had characterized white-dominated gay organizing. In Vancouver and Saskatoon, LGBT Indigenous people formed groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, though it would be some years before such advocacy was established on firm foundations (Brochu-Ingram, 2015; Depelteau & Giroux, 2015).

To this point, there had only been isolated instances of activist success within the political mainstream (Rayside, 1998, 2008). In 1973, Toronto City Council explicitly prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, followed in the next few years by other cities. Beyond the local level, though, the only notable activist victory was the 1977 addition of sexual orientation to human rights law in Quebec.

1985–1992: AIDS Activism, Relationship Recognition, and Expanded Political Opportunity

The AIDS epidemic in Canada, as in other settings, devastated the ranks of veteran activists but also greatly expanded the movement. And more than in other countries with an established history of LGBT activism, the Canadian movement was able to take advantage of opportunities to improve media portrayals of those most affected by the epidemic, and expand access to mainstream policymaking channels.

LGBT Activists at the Center of AIDS Mobilization

From its early years, the AIDS epidemic drew in veterans of what was now an experienced and high-profile movement. Mostly these were gay men, but this crisis partially bridged the gender divide by attracting many women with long experience in confronting gender discrimination in the health system. AIDS committees were formed in Toronto and Vancouver in 1983, and soon afterward in Montreal and other cities. The rapid spread of infection and the awareness of what devastation was being inflicted on major American communities generated alliances with reformist public health officials who were intent on developing preventive strategies that would work. This opened the door in the mid-1980s to local and provincial government funding for community-based programs aimed at providing supports for those already infected and educational campaigns for those who were not. This may have tied AIDS groups to the provision of social services, but also expanded the capacity to intervene legally and politically in defending sexual minority communities from discriminatory exclusion based on the fear of HIV. AIDS activists in most urban centers were also able to work with the mainstream media to reduce sensationalist reportage.

As in other settings, people with AIDS sometimes formed separate groups of their own. In most Canadian cities, though, the relationship between groups was cooperative. The formation of more confrontational groups in the late 1980s was also not as divisive of the overall movement as it was in parts of Europe and the United States. The most enduring of these was the Toronto-based AIDS Action Now! formed in 1988 (McCaskell, 2016). That group’s record provides an example of activists ready to deploy confrontational tactics being also prepared to work within policy networks and to acknowledge the value of more-established AIDS service organizations.

AIDS-related public funds also enhanced opportunities for organization-building in ethnocultural communities historically marginal in lesbian and gay politics. In Toronto, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention and the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention were established in 1989, both on firmer foundations than any earlier initiatives in those communities. Public funding also assisted in the development of Indigenous groups, including Winnipeg’s Nichiwakan Native Gay and Lesbian Society and Toronto’s Two Spirited People of the First Nations.

The most established LGBT groups, however, were still slow to diversify their own ranks and develop a more assertively inclusive politics. Between 1983 and 1985, The Body Politic was a vehicle for much discussion of exclusionary practices in the movement and a target of attack for what many regarded as an insensitive ad in a 1985 issue (McCaskell, 2016, chap. 7; Warner, 2002, pp. 184–185, 317–319). Some coalition-building was spottily evident. Toronto was the site of the mid-1980s formation of the Simon Nkodi Anti-Apartheid Committee, highlighting the arrest of an early black African gay activist as well as the broader struggle against apartheid (McCaskell, 2016, pp. 222–223, 269–270).4 This was also a period in which more activist attention was being directed to immigration and refugee issues, spurred in part by homosexuality having ceased (in 1978) to be a ground for barring entry to the country. Work in this area expanded further when the federal government began allowing refugee claims of persecution based on sexual orientation in 1991. The Lesbian and Gay Immigration Task Force was established in Vancouver that year, and its network soon spread across the country. There were soon other groups in cities like Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Winnipeg, focusing on assisting same-sex partners to immigrate or supporting LGBT refugee claimants.

Mainstream Political Gains

Opportunities to secure major rights victories beyond the local level were still rare, even with the leverage provided to AIDS activist groups. But movement advocates in Ontario saw one such opening in 1986. Activists led by the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario had tried for years to convince the provincial government to add sexual orientation to the Human Rights Code, to no avail. A mid-decade change in party control of the provincial government, coupled with the need to bring the human rights code into line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, gave a broadened coalition of activists, supported by the provincial New Democratic Party, a chance at success. In response, religious conservatives generated the single largest wave of antigay protest that Canada had yet seen, but at year’s end activists helped persuade a majority of legislators to approve the measure, in part by highlighting the hatefulness of the religious right’s campaigning. Within the next few years, activists in most other provinces had secured similar amendments. This was a decade before trans activism became high profile in Canada, so demands for the inclusion of gender identity and expression in human rights statutes were not yet incorporated into the movement’s agenda.

The continued expansion of community networks was also creating opportunities for openly gay and lesbian candidacies for elected office. Sue Harris was elected to the Vancouver Parks Board in 1985, by which time there had been local town councilors in Quebec and Ontario who had come out while in office. Raymond Blain won a seat on Montreal’s city council in 1986, and Kyle Rae on Toronto’s in 1991. Svend Robinson became the first “out” federal legislator in 1988, having already distinguished himself for promoting LGBT equality. Early runs for office often mobilized large numbers of local activists, and at this stage most candidates saw themselves as part of the broader LGBT movement (Rayside, 1998).

This whole period was very much dominated by LGBT advocacy on HIV/AIDS, but by the end of the 1980s, demands that same-sex relationships be recognized in Canadian law and institutional practice became a high priority. AIDS activism contributed significantly to concerns about the recognition of such relationships, for example, in healthcare decision-making and the provision of supportive social benefits to partners. “Family” issues were not new to the movement: after all, parenting issues had been raised early on by lesbian mothers and gay fathers, and the iconic 1971 march in Ottawa had included relationship recognition among its demands. But now the stakes were enhanced by people with AIDS, by the increasing number of gays and lesbians living openly in couples, and by the greater opportunities for such couples to have children. The fact that relationship claims were not linked to the idea of marriage ensured that they had widespread support across LGBT communities, even if groups like the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario had struggled to develop what Tom Warner described as a “fragile consensus” that bridged differences between liberationist skepticism about prioritizing the rights of couples and aiming for “mere equality” and those who were focused on precisely that equality (Warner, 2002, pp. 225–226).

There were small gains on this front to provide encouragement. In 1986, Hamilton became the first major city in Canada to extend workplace benefits for its own employees to include same-sex partners. By 1992, it was joined by Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, as well as by five provinces and territories. Activist-supported claimants also scored their first major court victories on access to benefits, in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and at the federal level.

The fact that litigation was now holding out more promise than ever, and that legislative change seemed possible at the federal level, breathed life into the establishment of an LGBT-focused group with at least a plausible claim to cross-Canada visibility. Egale (using the initials in “equality for lesbians and gays everywhere”) was established in 1986 at a time when the federal government seemed open to enacting formal protections against discrimination. For the first several years, however, it was a very small group based almost entirely on volunteers in the Ottawa area, governed by a considerable degree of political caution and disconnected from the work being done at the local level.

1993–2005: Accelerating Political Impact

In the decade beginning in 1993, Canada went from a country in which LGBT mobilizing had produced only spotty results to one of the world’s leaders in politically recognizing sexual diversity. This was a period of “takeoff” in law and public policy, particularly on same-sex relationships and queer parenting. It was also a time of dramatic change in public opinion, as well as being when all three of the country’s largest cities were building international reputations as LGBT-friendly destinations. Back in 1990, Vancouver hosted a huge international gathering of over 7,000 athletes, attracting 2,500 volunteers and 12,000 spectators, and through the decade and a half to follow, Pride celebrations there as well as in Montreal and especially Toronto were growing dramatically. Film festivals were born and then expanded; theater productions proliferated; cultural events became more visible than ever.

Relationship Recognition and Parenting

Equality rights campaigning had now become very much the dominant current in the movement, with activism based on “liberated sexuality” and “resistance to state oppression,” as Tom Warner puts it, “more controversial and marginalized” (Warner, 2002, p. 347).

Between 1990 and 1992, major court decisions treated the discriminatory treatment of lesbian and gay couples as unconstitutional—in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario—often in cases launched by long-time activists. The standard that judges were being asked to use was still not marriage, but the by-now expansive recognition given to common-law heterosexual couples. Appeal court rulings in a few different provinces were now clear on this, and the Supreme Court of Canada 1993 ruling in Mossop hinted at a similar view even as it denied the specific claim at hand. By now, the labor movement was routinely supporting demands that workplace benefits include same-sex partners (Hunt, 1999; Hunt & Eaton, 2007).

The leverage that this provided for activists seeking legislative change was not immediately obvious. The first significant mobilization of community resources directed at provincial recognition of same-sex relationships was in Ontario, where activists within the New Democratic Party and a newly formed Campaign for Equal Families pressured an NDP government elected in 1990. Four years later, the government finally acceded but allowed its own legislators to vote independently of party discipline when it was confronted by torrential protests from religious conservatives. In response the LGBT movement mounted an impressive campaign, but by now the centrist Liberals had almost entirely aligned with the firmly right Progressive Conservatives, and the addition of a few NDP dissidents doomed the legislation to defeat (Rayside, 1998, chap. 5).

In Quebec, a leftist Parti Québécois government was now equivocating on legislating in favor of same-sex couples. But at the other end of the country, lesbian and gay activists working mostly inside the provincial New Democratic Party were securing gains incrementally on precisely these issues. In 1992, the NDP-dominated legislature approved a bill on medical decision-making that redefined “spouse” to include same-sex relationships. One year later it did the same in four other government bills. Modest opposition arose only when, in 1995, yet another government bill effectively opened up full parenting rights to same-sex couples, but the measure was still approved easily. That same year, court rulings in Nova Scotia and Ontario gave clear indications that the judicial recognition of lesbian and gay relationships would extend to parenting rights.

The Supreme Court of Canada delivered its second ruling on same-sex relationships in 1995 (Egan v. Canada), ruling that sexual orientation discrimination was indeed unconstitutional (even if once again it could not quite bring itself to support the particular claimant). In 1999, the Court moved beyond such hesitations by deciding that discrimination in family law was unconstitutional (M. v. H.) in a case arising specifically from Ontario but seen as having cross-country application. Over the next three years, federal, provincial, and territorial legislatures amended hundreds of statutes to conform to this ruling.

The struggle of Quebec’s LGBT movement for full recognition in family policy had a somewhat distinct trajectory, demonstrating at once the weaknesses and strengths of activists in that setting (Tremblay, 2015a; Corriveau & Daoust, 2011). After years of governmental procrastination, LGBT activists scored a very partial victory with a new “civil union” regime in 1999. In 2002, advocates eventually persuaded a PQ government to address parenting issues, led effectively by the Lesbian Mothers Association (Association des mères lesbiennes), established in 1998 by Mona Greenbaum. By this time, courts in other jurisdictions were making clear that discrimination against same-sex couples or parents would not pass constitutional muster.

It was only at the turn of the century that marriage claims gained activist momentum. In fact, most same-sex couples were content enough with the legal and statutory recognition accorded cohabiting couples, even if they broadly supported the principle of full marriage recognition. In any event, the issue did not arouse large-scale LGBT mobilization, as the initial thrust was through court challenges. Between 2000 and 2002, courts in Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario were ruling that excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage was unconstitutional, though with implementation delays designed to give the federal Parliament time to act legislatively. In 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal said the same but in this case decreed that its ruling would take effect immediately—a step soon followed by courts elsewhere. The federal Liberal government of the day then decided that there was no chance of reversing the judgment on appeal, and promised legislation. Even if the constitutional case made the passage of legislation almost inevitable, substantial mobilizing by religious conservatives required an LGBT response, led by Egale Canada.

That group’s profile had grown significantly in the 1990s, mostly because it was now led by activists like John Fisher, skillful at generating mainstream media visibility in the face of federal government inaction on basic civil rights. Its energetic interventions pressured a reluctant Liberal government to secure the passage of federal Human Rights Code amendments in the middle of that decade. Several years later, the marriage battle gave the group renewed visibility, though its growth would be a far cry from large institutionalized LGBT groups in parts of Europe and the United States. Egale was still managing on few resources during the height of the marriage campaign, with a full-time staff of five and an annual budget of half a million dollars. It also still had much less visibility in francophone Quebec than elsewhere in Canada.

Marriage legislation was passed in 2005, and even if a new hard-right leader of the Conservative Party promised to revisit the issue, Stephen Harper conceded defeat at the end of 2006 not long after assuming the prime ministership. At this stage, there was no government in Canada, however conservative, that was offering significant resistance to the full recognition of same-sex relationships. This did not mean that inequity in family policy had been eliminated, for there were still challenges to overcome on parenting especially. The registration of two same-sex parents on birth certificates was one issue; access to surrogacy and other forms of assisted reproduction was another.

Movement Engagement With Other Issues

Despite the energies devoted to family issues by lesbian and gay activists across the country, the movement as a whole was expanding its issue range during this time. Trans activism increased significantly in the mid-1990s, as it did in other countries (Currah, Juang, & Minter, 2006; Namaste, 2000). The fragmentation of that constituency and the extreme disadvantage experienced by most trans people limited the potential for stable group formation, but in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto there was a major increase in activist voices calling for greater recognition in the LGBT movement, for greater protections against discrimination, and for easier access to the healthcare interventions required for transitioning. In Vancouver, the Foundation for the Advancement of Trans-Gender Equality was established at mid-decade, and the first significant demonstration for trans rights drew 150 people in 1998. Activist pressure from mainstream LGBT groups and trans networks spurred the beginnings of a rights shift, with courts and human rights tribunals increasingly ruling that gender identity and expression were covered by existing statutes. In 2002, the Northwest Territories legislature was the first in the country to explicitly include gender identity in human rights law.

Pressure on schooling issues was also ramping up from the late 1990s on, as more activists became impatient at the unresponsiveness of educational authorities to LGBT marginalization in a country where so much change was occurring on other fronts. Toronto had witnessed a long history of activist networking before this, first among educators and then among young people themselves, but now teachers and students were organizing in several provinces and many local governments (boards) from Victoria on one coast to Halifax on another (McCaskell, 2005; Rayside, 2008). In some cases, they encountered stiff opposition from religious conservatives, for example, in British Columbia near the end of the 1990s. In that struggle, Gay and Lesbian Educators were supported by the B.C. Teachers Federation, and by the turn of the century teacher unions in other provinces were increasingly recognizing the need for change. By the mid-2000s, students were following their U.S. counterparts in establishing Gay Straight Alliances and their equivalents. Egale too was taking up schooling issues, and like other groups it was using the prevalence of harassment and bullying as a policy wedge. This produced important changes in policy in local boards in Canada’s major cities, though not yet at the level of provincial education ministries.

Organizing within progressive religious networks also remained an important part of the broader LGBT movement. More faith communities within the religious mainstream were publicly inclusive, in some cases accepting lesbians and gay men as ministers and rabbis. The Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto had become an important center of advocacy, and like other congregations a major sponsor of LGBT refugees. Outside of the big cities, faith communities often worked far from the limelight to change hearts and minds.

In 1992, Salaam was established in Toronto as a source of support for LGBT Muslims, one of the first such groups in the world (Rahman & Hussain, 2011). It recognized prejudice within established LGBT circles but was also prepared to confront silence and discrimination within the Muslim community, which now constituted the largest religious minority in Canada. Organizing within Canada’s well-established Jewish community had longer roots and had translated into relatively high levels of community acceptance of sexual diversity.

Overall, this was a period in which political recognition of sexual minorities had expanded rapidly and to some extent had become normalized. There were certainly important exceptions, schooling being an important issue area receiving, up to the 1990s until then, only localized attention. There were still major LGBT communities facing extraordinary social and economic disadvantage, trans and Indigenous people among them. The gains, however, were unmistakable. Public opinion had shifted to a remarkable degree, to the extent that by 2004 there was majority support for gay/lesbian adoption and marriage (Rayside, 2008, p. 47). After much hand-wringing, centrist parties had come to embrace LGBT rights and even to see political advantage in attacking right-wing politicians for antigay pronouncements. Large corporations had moved beyond the extension of benefits to same-sex couples and were beginning to vie with one another for reputation as LGBT inclusive. Pride marches had grown many times larger than they had been and were popping up in small as well as large cities across the country.

The established elements of the activist movement were now thoroughly legitimized and comfortably working inside a wide array of mainstream political channels. The overwhelming majority of media coverage was at least broadly supportive of the gains secured over this decade, and opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity was coming to be seen as extreme. The continuing antigay preoccupations of the American religious right and the Republican Party may even have increased public and media portrayals of such sentiment as un-Canadian.

2005+: Post-Marriage Complacency?

From the mid-2000s on, the LGBT movement was less able to marshal unity or a sense of urgency than before. There were large and solidly established institutions in the large cities and, increasingly, even beyond, including those that sponsored Pride-related events, film and arts festivals, and LGBT archives. Pride Toronto, the Vancouver Pride Society, and Fierté Montréal were well established. These all had important political currents, but more driven by celebration than advocacy.

The provision of social services to sexual minorities, particularly to young people and those most on the community margins, was being increased, sometimes through government-funded health and social service agencies, and sometimes through community centers that were explicitly (as in Vancouver) or de facto LGBT focused (as in Toronto). These centers were part of the movement, as were those professionals who advocated for new or enhanced services within local and regional agencies. The same was true of staff and volunteers in organizations focused on HIV/AIDS, though the diversification of communities affected by the epidemic beyond sexual minorities meant that this sector was less integrally a part of the LGBT activist movement than in the past.

By this period, there were LGBT-positive networks in a wide variety of other institutional settings—workplaces, churches and synagogues, educational institutions, government departments, professional associations, and arts bodies. Many of these had only a modest commitment to political advocacy, but they usually included some activists urging greater inclusivity. Academic centers devoted to the study of sexual diversity had emerged first in the 1990s, but now were more prominent, most notably the University of Toronto’s Bonham Centre. Some such centers were well connected to advocacy networks, and facilitated media access to respected expertise in a variety of specialties associated with LGBT community life.5

Immigration and refugee issues were also drawing more activism than ever. In 2006, the Toronto-based group Rainbow Railroad was created to support those seeking escape from persecution, and like Egale, to work on improving Canadian government responsiveness. Groups such as this, alongside long-established networks of immigration professionals across the country, were also attentive to screening processes applied to sexual minority refugees that set either unrealistic standards for proving homosexuality or for determining the unfriendliness of places from which claimants were escaping.

Escalating trans activism significantly increased the established LGBT movement’s attention to gender identity and expression. The success of the overall LGBT movement in securing formal rights associated with sexual orientation created opportunities to extend those rights to include gender identity and expression. Efforts to secure legislative guarantees against discrimination on those grounds were finding success across the country, either in the formal addition of those terms to human rights statutes or in declarations from human rights commissions that they would interpret existing grounds to include trans rights. Federal action was delayed by the continuing resistance of a Conservative government that gained office in 2006, though its defeat in the 2015 election cleared the way for enactment of such a measure in 2017.

Despite such activist proliferation, there were fewer groups focused primarily on political advocacy than in the past. There were fewer of the bookstores and newspaper offices that had once been the heart of LGBT politics. As in other countries, the geographic “villages” in the three largest cities were less vibrant, with recurrent talk of their no longer meeting the needs of sexual minority populations. The explosive growth of the Internet may well have been a factor in the decline of such community hubs. Although expanding the ease of communication between those supporting LGBT claims, and potentially broadening the reach of advocacy groups, the development of social media may have reduced the capacity for such groups to generate serious activist energy to the work required for effective grassroots campaigning. Breadth, in other words, may have come at the expense of depth of commitment.

The two most firmly established groups explicitly focused on broad-ranged LGBT advocacy were the Toronto-based Egale Canada and the Montreal-based Coalition LGBT. Egale was still the main advocacy claiming a cross-country role, and to some extent it had adapted to the movement’s earlier gains and managed to secure sufficient funding from governments and other institutions to sustain more paid staff than at any time in the group’s history (even if still under 10). It helped mobilize support for the inclusion of trans rights in federal law during the politically unfriendly time of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. It also devoted considerable attention to schooling, part of a broader commitment to youth at risk, publishing a resource package for the formation of LGBT-inclusive student groups in the mid-2000s and releasing an influential survey of school climate in 2011 (Taylor & Peter, 2011). In 2017, it secured a formal apology from the federal government for the dismissal of thousands of government employees in the antigay purges that lasted for decades in the postwar period. Despite all this laudable work, however, it was more difficult for Egale to retain cross-country prominence. This was true everywhere, but the separation between the LGBT movement in Quebec and the rest of Canada also meant that Egale’s visibility was especially modest in that province.

In Quebec, the Coalition LGBT has played a similar role and now hosts large galas attracting politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as other mainstream community leaders (Tremblay, 2015a). It focuses less on schooling than Egale, as there are well-established groups with long experience in that domain (most notably GRIS-Montreal, La Groupe de recherche et d’intervention social de Montréal). It spends more time on parenting issues, particularly in response to the challenges faced by same-sex parents in overcoming restrictions in access to surrogacy and assisted reproduction. Another of the most established groups is the Fondation emergence, which has developed public education programs targeting prejudice and has became the major Canadian supporter of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Groups like the Fondation and GRIS have benefitted from the Quebec government’s cross-ministry commitment to combating homophobia and transphobia, and its willingness to fund groups engaged in that work (Quebec, 2017).6

In broad terms, the advocacy agenda and the array of groups articulating political goals are not categorically different from those to be found in other big cities. What is different is the extent to which the “national” question still affects the movement, at all times creating the potential for tension between anglophones and francophones and on some occasions among French-speaking activists themselves. Since 2007, the mainstream media and the political arena in Quebec have been recurrently seized by debate over the integration of immigrants, and specifically over the wearing of symbols or clothing with religious significance, in a society increasingly drawn (in principle, if often not in practice) to the kind of assertive secularism found in France. The target of such concern is unmistakably Muslims, who constitute (as in the rest of the country) the largest religious minority. When a Parti Québécois government introduced a form of “values” test for newcomers, labeled as a Quebec Charter of Values, queer activist coalitions formed on both sides of the debate (l’Association LGBT pour un Québec inclusive vs. LGBT pour la laïcité). Although there has certainly been support for such exclusionary policy in the rest of Canada, there is no credibly LGBT community voice for it anywhere outside Quebec.

There is a tendency for Canadian politicians to talk of LGBT inclusivity as a natural accompaniment to the country’s official endorsement of multiculturalism. The fact that the 2017 federal government apology for civil servant purges elicited almost no legislative opposition is one example of how little appetite there is, at least in the current leadership of the Conservative Party, for preying on opposition to public recognition of sexual diversity.

This has occasionally translated into “preachiness” toward other countries that maintain explicitly oppressive policies on sexual diversity. In general, however, the LGBT movement has been cautious about proclaiming Canada as a world leader, not least because there have been recent examples of federal and provincial governments playing to antigay sentiment. It is true that Pride groups tout the LGBT-positive environments they operate in to draw in more visitors, and certainly LGBT groups focused on immigration and refugee issues can hardly avoid acknowledging that Canada is advantageous for sexual minorities fleeing persecution. But in general, movement activists are aware of the distance still to be traveled for full-fledged inclusiveness.

“Homonationalism” is somewhat more obvious in Quebec. As Valérie Lapointe argues, Quebec’s media regularly talk of Quebec as significantly more progressive on LGBT issues in comparison to the rest of Canada (Mercure, 2018). Immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, are also frequently characterized as the archaic “other,” juxtaposed to the thoroughly inclusive “us.” This is reflected in the approach of important currents in the LGBT movement, though the Coalition LGBT and other parts of the Montreal-based activist community have also become attuned to the racism that lies at the heart of such frameworks.

In Canada’s other large cities, race-focused challenges to established components of the LGBT movement have been more prominent since the turn of the century, and especially in the 2010s. The history of activism in Canada, as elsewhere, has been marked by recurrent critiques about exclusion, and although increased overall LGBT engagement with trans issues has diminished (not eliminated) complaints of marginalization within the movement, tensions over movement priorities and leadership from racialized minorities have intensified.

The most vocal critiques have come from queer blacks, who were prominent in the Canadian groups that formed under the banner of Black Lives Matter, originating in the United States (Walcott, 2016). Policing was a major focus, reflecting the activist preoccupations of black communities across North America. Although there were many in the LGBT community at large who believed that police forces had become genuinely more inclusive, instances of police harassment long after the period of high-profile raids in the 1970s and 1980s had maintained a degree of distrust, especially among activists representing trans people, sex workers, and racialized minorities. In 2016, Black Lives Matter protested the presence of police in Toronto’s Pride march and then secured agreement to ban uniformed police officers from participating in the 2017 parade. This was soon followed by a similar ban in Calgary and a partial ban in Vancouver. A number of other LGBT community institutions were, at the same time, coming under fire for not being sufficiently inclusive in ethno-racial terms, with black activists frequently taking the lead.

Divisions over how to address such issues are increased by the range of communities that can reasonably claim to have been largely left out of the political and institutional gains of previous decades. Blacks, for example, constitute between 15% and 20% of Canada’s visible minorities, outnumbered by those with roots in South and East Asia. Among those most dramatically on the margins of Canadian society—and LGBT communities—are Indigenous peoples, whose struggles are quite distinct from those of people of color, Muslims, and queers with disabilities.

Overall, then, the Canadian movement became more fragmented after the mid-2000s, not only as a result of the reduced role of multi-issue groups, regionalization, issue specialization, and reliance on individual court challenges, but also of disagreement over how to approach issues such as ethno-racial inequality. The relative weakness of religious conservatism has deprived the LGBT movement of the unifying force of a powerful opposition. It also produces complacency not only within sexual minority communities but in the general public as well. Emblematic of that is the 2009 decision to close up shop by the dwindling core of activists in the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario.

And yet there has still been a need for political vigilance. Between 2006 and 2015, the federal government was in the hands of a Conservative government that avoided taking on the highest profile issues pressed upon it by religiously traditionalist supporters, but it still undertook many smaller steps to signal its sympathies with their antigay agenda (Rayside et al., 2017, chap. 2). In 2017, Alberta’s reconstituted Conservative Party chose as leader a social traditionalist neoliberal with a solid record of supporting antigay measures. In Ontario, a new elementary school curriculum on sexual health provoked controversy when first introduced in 2010, in part because of its inclusive messaging around sexual diversity, and even more protest arose when it was reintroduced five years later (Rayside et al., 2017, chap. 6). Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives sided with protesters in 2010, and when that party won the 2018 provincial election, it lost no time before suspending the revised curriculum.


By the 2010s, religiously conservative opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity was weaker than ever, and even conservative parties led by moral traditionalists were usually wary of appearing homophobic—admittedly with important exceptions. More common are political claims—across a wide partisan spectrum—that Canada (and Quebec) are models of inclusion worthy of international emulation. As Tim McCaskell wryly notes at the beginning of his critical assessment of “queer progress,”

As a social movement, gay rights had been successful beyond its early strategists’ wildest dreams. From a reviled, quasi-criminal class, we were now included in the constellation of minorities valued by Canadian multiculturalism.

(2016, p. 1)

Indeed, there has been a significant shift in law, public policy, institutional practice, and public attitudes. Survey questions tapping “approval” or “disapproval” of homosexuality have shown a spectacular fall in moral condemnation, from 55% “disapproving” in 1987 to 15% in 2013 (Langstaff, 2011, p. 51; Pew Research, 2013). By 2010, more than two-thirds of Canadians supported same-sex marriage.

Christian-led antigay mobilization certainly delayed the enactment of inclusive policies, in Alberta, for example, but ultimately there is no province or territory in which moral conservatives have been able to roll back gains in law, public policy, or institutional practice. On several occasions, centrist politicians with no deep-seated allegiance to the recognition of sexual diversity have recognized the electoral advantage of associating conservative opponents with homophobic extremism. The political gains effected by the LGBT movement in Canada were eased significantly by the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, though courtroom gains have to be understood as a consequence of strategic activism.

The movement’s successes have come despite its geographic fragmentation, the limits on resources, and the challenges facing any group seeking cross-Canada legitimacy. LGBT movements around the world have in most periods been primarily local or regional, but that is more the case in Canada than elsewhere. As Manon Tremblay says, activism in this country “is carved up into a checkerboard of territories, ideologies, organizations, and constituencies” (Tremblay, 2015b, p. 275). That said, there have been strong cross-regional similarities in the kinds of struggles engaged, the strategies deployed, and the political frameworks used by activists to overcome countrywide reluctance of governments to respond, which persisted into the 1990s.

The Canadian movement, not unlike movements in other places, went from one in the 1970s dominated by radical challenges to the social and institutional status quo, to one that by the 2000s had become less confrontational, less transformative in its aspirations, and more professionalized. But the makeup and outlook of the 1970s movement was more of a blend than most accounts suggest, and even if in the post-1990s environment the movement was a largely reformist one working within established social and political frameworks, we are still seeing confrontational currents emerging under the LGBT umbrella.

The Canadian LGBT movement has had no shortage of issues to take up in the period following the policy takeoff of the 1990s and early 2000s. There is an understandable concern about whether the movement’s past success has widened a sense of complacency that then diminishes its capacity to mobilize grassroots constituencies. There are also legitimate critiques pointing out that there are still sexual minority communities who experience discrimination within and beyond LGBT communities. In some cases, this has generated new activist energy, though not all such causes have unified the broad community or its most established activist networks.

LGBT community engagement and activist mobilization have been shaped by social and technological change. The much-touted connectivity associated with the Internet, for example, has enhanced the capacity to mobilize activism, but also increases isolation and potentially diminishes preparedness to join in collective action. As Robert Putnam (2000) points out, the decline of civic engagement began decades ago, long before the massive spread of the Internet. Metaphorically, he points to the shift from joining community sports leagues to “bowling alone.” LGBT community members who might once have visited clubs or bars are now less likely to, and those who might once have gone to political group meetings stay at home and assume that specialists, experts, and institutional staff will look after the issue challenges that remain.

The Canadian movement, then, is fundamentally different from that which started to surge into public view in 1969. It is less confrontational and less driven by transformative ideologies. There seem to be fewer focal points to the movement—fewer groups with wide political agendas. There is more issue specialization and more emphasis on the application of pressure inside mainstream institutional channels. There is less large-scale mobilization and perhaps less capacity for that. There remains, however, a rich set of connections within an ever-expanding range of sexual minority communities, and we are right to recognize that political energy can still be applied to insist that governments, religious institutions, employers, and service providers respond inclusively to the full range of community members asserting their rights to be included.


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  • 1. Muslims are an example of a community that continues to have a substantial current of sexual conservatism (Rahman & Hussain, 2011).

  • 2. This is uneven across provinces, but substantial across the country. Quebec’s Civil Code is less expansive in its recognition of unregistered co-habitational couples, but statute law still extends considerable recognition to them.

  • 3. The inclusion of “homophile” in the name might suggest an adherence to a reformist approach to activism, but in fact the group’s leading members were substantially influenced by the more radical activism surging in American cities.

  • 4. Both “Nkodi” and “Nkoli” have been used as spelling, though the group’s official name appears to have been the former.

  • 5. That said, queer academic work also included theoretical work that did not always provide much guidance to advocates. As Tim McCaskell observes, queer theory, “inaccessible to all but the cognoscenti,” and so marked by “anxieties and insights about the potential contradictory and unintended consequences of any action,” has at times had “a paralyzing influence” (2016, pp. 469, 411).

  • 6. The Quebec government first enunciated a formal policy on combating homophobia in 2009, and since then has approved two five-year action plans which at least in theory engaged several large government ministries, the latest being that issued in 2017.