Immigrants move to a new country for many reasons. For some, it is simply a desire to experience a new culture and live in an unfamiliar place. For others, it is pursuing financial stability, the great promise of North America for well over 100 years now. Others, however, leave their country of origin for much less benign reasons, escaping violence and persecution to seek refuge in a new country. We call such people “refugees” to distinguish them from other immigrants.
Statistics Canada’s 2021 census result reveals that approximately 1 million Canadians came into the country as refugees. Among these refugees are individuals who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+), often fleeing an unwelcoming or dangerous country. The last person criminally charged for homosexual practices in Canada was Everett Klippert in 1967. Since 2005, all sexual and gender identifications and same-sex marriages have been recognized in Canada. But this is not the case in many countries, where it is not only illegal to express non-heteronormative gender and sexual identities, but such identifications can result in physical violence or death. This is one of the reasons many seek refuge in a more welcoming country and why organizations like the End of the Rainbow Foundation exist.
This Calgary-based non-profit organization was founded in 2018 to support LGBTQ+ newcomers. Located in downtown Calgary at the CommunityWise Resource Centre, the foundation runs the Calgary LGBTQ+ Refugee Centre. Their services provide a safe and welcoming space for vulnerable immigrants who come from places where their sexual or gender identity has either been lived in secret or publicly decried by the government and society. Those who arrive at the End of the Rainbow are welcomed with open arms, open minds, and a city and community invested in caring for their newly-arrived counterparts.’
End of the Rainbow programs accommodates different kinds of queer newcomers. The LGBTQ+ Newcomers Group is a meet-up for newcomers with some meetings at fun locations around the city. This group introduces those new to Calgary to its vibrant social life and many attractions. The foundation also has other groups such as TransJourneys, TransFamilies Calgary, and Positive Spaces specifically for transgender newcomers, whose journeys and issues are likely more fraught than most cisgendered queer folx. Further, for those entering the country seeking refugee status, the foundation’s volunteers can assist with paperwork and hearings for LGBTQ+ newcomers with precarious circumstances.
Elliot Dewhirst, the foundation’s coordinator, describes the organization as creating “safety, belonging and community for LGBTQ+ folks from across the globe.” He further notes that “community building is a reciprocal process, and many people who access our services…stay involved both as participants,” while others find ways of contributing to the broader queer community.
“Community building is a reciprocal process, and many people who access our services…stay involved both as participants”
— Elliot Dewhirst
During 2022 Pride month, Dewhirst shares that “refugees from our program were Marshalls” leading the Calgary celebration and volunteers with the organization marched in the parade with End of the Rainbow. Dewhirst recalls one individual approaching him afterwards, crying and smiling all at once. “They gave me a big hug,” remembers Dewhirst, “and said thank you for making space for us to join; it just means so much.” He adds that it is “important that people see themselves as part of the community, and that they are invited into the community, and can recognize that they too belong.” Calgary has a vibrant LGBTQ+ community, with events happening throughout the year and the annual celebration of Pride at the beginning of September. Honourable Jyoti Gondek, Calgary’s current mayor, is a vocal community supporter. In a Facebook post in 2020, after a unanimous vote banning conversion therapy in the city, she wrote, “we shouldn’t have to fight against harmful practices that promote shame, self-doubt and self-harm.” For an LBGTQ+ newcomer, it must be astounding to see not only a leader who values their identity but also an organization that wishes to see them settled and happy.