Ottawa LGBT History: 'We Demand'

The birth of queer liberation in Canada

On August 28, 1971, roughly 100 people from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and the surrounding areas gathered in the pouring rain at Parliament Hill and started a quiet but determined revolution.

On the corner of Bank and Gilmour Streets, a mural commissioned by the Village Committee was unveiled on the 40th anniversary of the 'We Demand' demonstration, the first ever such protest in Canada for LGBT rights. It shows a young Charlie Hill speaking under an umbrella as he lists off the ten demands for equal rights and protections for a burgeoning queer community.

But Hill was not one of the intended speakers that day. He filled in because the car that speechwriters David Newcombe and Herb Spiers of Toronto Gay Action were in tipped over in an accident on the way to the demonstration.

Spiers would later say, "I must say that writing the demands came very easily, partly because that sort of thing is my bent and also because they really wrote themselves because they were obvious and just." Charlie Hill read the demands but other speakers included George Hislop and Pat Murphy on behalf of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto; Pierre Masson for Montreal’s Front de Libération Homosexuel and American activist John Williams also addressed the crowd. A simultaneous protest was held in Vancouver at the Court House.

Neither Hill nor attendees Peter Maloney or Marie Robertson recalls this being a particularly momentous event at the time and have only vague memories of it. The crowd was small, there was little media and the rain somewhat dampened the spirits of the protesters. Hill felt this was only one of a series of protests he participated in for a variety of causes. Maloney recalled the most memorable event was a couple of men engaging in sex acts on the chartered bus he took from Toronto. Only later, upon reflection, was the event recognized for its significance.

Today, more of less all of the demands have been realized and far faster than anyone would have expected at the time. The brave men and women who dared to declare openly for their rights that day paved the way for all the rights and privileges we now enjoy.

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