Saskatchewan’s LGBTQ community centres need a funding upgrade

PROVINCE by Nathan Raine

Q Nightclub (photo Darrol Hofmeister)

Saskatoon Pride Week runs June 7-14 while Regina’s kicks off right after, beginning on the 15th and running to June 21. And both festivals have grown in size and support since their inceptions.

Both cities, of course, have universities with strong LGBTQ centres, but for the wider community, Saskatoon is recognized for having some of the better LGBTQ services in Western Canada — thanks in a big way to the much-admired and recently renamed OUTSaskatoon.

Regina doesn’t have anything like OUTSaskatoon, although Q — a bar/nightclub/community centre located downtown on Broad St. — functions as the centre of LGBTQ services in the Queen City.

OUTSaskatoon provides peer support counselling, education and a sexual health clinic, among many other services. While Saskatchewan is much more accepting of LGBTQ persons than it used to be, OUTSaskatoon director Rachel Loewen Walker says these services are still very much needed.

“All year long we’re responding to phone calls and people in different states of crisis. There are still people committing suicide,” says Loewen Walker. “The effects of isolation and homophobia are still huge in terms of depression and increased addiction, as well as other mental health problems.”

“We need to provide a space for people who come out and need a safe, confidential space. We need those positive, supportive environments to know there is a great future ahead,” she says.

The need is certainly not limited to Saskatoon. The University of Regina has an active pride centre as well as Q. But OUTSaskatoon remains the only health-oriented community centre for LGBTQ persons in Saskatchewan.

Both Regina and Prince Albert have tried to implement their own centres, with financial obstacles getting in the way of achieving an actual centre.

“Saskatoon is lucky to have such a vibrant base of community organizations,” says Loewen Walker. “In Prince Albert there is a great need, and we tried to set up a sister centre there years ago, but there simply wasn’t enough funding. In Saskatoon we have funding from the provincial and federal governments, as well as from businesses. We’ve been around for 24 years, so it takes a long time to build that support,” she says.

Loewen Walker notes that in Prince Albert there’s limited LGBTQ support now, with only one independent individual doing it on a volunteer basis.

In Regina, the situation is a little more complicated. Q has long been an active member of the LGBTQ support and community scene, but they’re often thought of as a bar and nightclub first.

But general manager Cory Oxelgren says Q should be thought of as a community centre first and bar second.

“We consider ourselves a community centre that has a bar/nightclub aspect, not the other way around,” says Oxelgren.

Over the last number of years, the club has housed phone support lines, provided space for LGBT groups and events and even housed the now-defunct Rainbow Wellness Resource Centre in its basement.

“We housed the Rainbow Wellness Centre, which I would argue was closer to what Saskatoon was doing with [OUTSaskatoon],” says Oxelgren. “There was a director hired and they got funding and a board of directors.

“But after a while, I don’t know if the need wasn’t as great or the volunteers dried up, but it kind of went defunct,” he says. “It’s still sitting there in limbo.”

But while the wellness centre is currently defunct, Oxelgren says that Q is helping Regina’s LGBTQ scene by providing a safe, welcoming space for social interaction.

“Yeah, I do believe some of the things going on here have been overlooked — specifically with Q, because it’s our mandate to run a social organization. But a social place has its merits,” he says. “If I was a young gay person coming out of the closet, where is the first place I would go? To the bar! If you’re a young gay person coming out, do you go to the Avenue Centre or to the bar?”

Still, Oxelgren acknowledges one downside in having Regina’s foremost LGBTQ centre linked to a bar and nightclub. There’s more difficulty finding monetary support.

“When you’re dealing with people who have addictions, the bar is not the right place to do that,” he says. “The LGBTQ community would have a difficult time getting grants to hold certain things because the social club upstairs is making a profit. So I understand why people think that Q, as a bar, should have nothing to do with the health and wellness portion of the community. But I would argue that we are the frontline people — when people come out, it’s usually at a club. So we’re trying to facilitate a safe space for that.”

Though Pride Week brings plenty of attention to each city’s respective LGBTQ centres, both Oxelgren and Loewen Walker agree that there’s still a lot that needs to be done in both cities.

“There are certainly gaps in the health services: young people aren’t practicing safe sex as much anymore; there’s an increase in HIV in young gay men,” says Oxelgren. “But you don’t hear a thing about it in the media — it’s gay men, so it’s not an issue. I would say that both the Saskatoon and Regina communities are not active or loud enough on that front.”

Loewen Walker echoes that sentiment — whether a social- or health-based organization, both cities and their centres have a limited reach. They hope that the increased attention during Pride Week will expose the wider community to the fact that the need for them is still great.

“I think all levels of leadership and government have to recognize the value of community-based organizations,” says Loewen Walker. “Being in OUTSaskatoon has really taught me how valuable drop-in centres are.

“We work with people who fall through the cracks,” says Loewen Walker. ”If places like this weren’t here, where would they go?”