Surrey teacher Annie Ohana never saw her cultural background represented in schools she attended.
Born in Montreal to Jewish family with roots in Morocco, she also did not learn anything about sexual orientation, gender identity, or the history of mistreatment of 2SLGBTQ+ people.
“There were so many things I did not get to know about—and they were connected to me,” Ohana, who defines herself as cis-pansexual, told the Straight by phone.
Fortunately, she could see how her father, who managed a small mechanics shop, interacted with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and socioeconomic realities. And that offered her a real-life example.
But it wasn’t until she reached university that she learned about intersectionality and how different layers of oppression—linked to everything from gender to race to national origin to sexual orientation—can affect a single person.
“All these things started to come up and then when I became a teacher, it became apparent to me that the system as it is isn’t really supporting everyone,” Ohana said. “So as an educator, you’ve got to teach to transform. You’ve got to teach to bring forward as positive an experience as possible.”
For her, it means sharing with students the beauty and resilience of the struggle for Indigenous rights. This passion is one of the reasons she was named as one of the two Indigenous graduate advocates at her school, L.A. Matheson.
She also feels it’s essential to promote the dignity of students of all genders and sexual orientations.
“The more we really take the time to say—‘Well, you’re different. That’s fine’—we’re actually going to be a stronger community for that,” the teacher said.
For her leadership on these issues, Ohana was named as one of the grand marshals of this year’s Vancouver Pride parade, which takes place on Sunday (July 31).
In the classroom and through a club called Mustang Justice that she founded at the school, Ohana challenges notions of cis-heteronormativy that still pervade society. She maintained that failing to do this creates harm for 2SLGBTQ+ students.
“They end up not wanting to go do school,” Ohana said. “Their mental health goes down. We see increases in bullying because things are not understood; they’re not talked about.
“I know that growing up, I didn’t have teachers that taught me these things,” she continued. “And now, as a teacher, I know just how much better, how much safer, how much actually more joyful school can be when we apply that intersectional lens.”
Ohana pointed out that the benefits of this approach ripple throughout the community.
“If people were to come into a school where kids feel safe and comfortable, you notice that kids really excel,” she said. “When they are themselves, they are better people. They’re learning better, they want to be in school. They help others. I see that every day.”
Mustang Justice was named for the school’s mascot, which is a mustang. It’s a club for students who want to volunteer on social-justice initiatives, reflecting her believe that justice is truly love in action.
Students are encouraged to learn about what other communities are like and the amazing things that they can do.
“I want students to understand in some way, shape or form, we have privileges,” Ohana said. “There’s always going to be one or two things that you have a privilege on. How can we use that to help as many people as possible? And to be not afraid to ask questions, to learn new things, but also to be proud of one’s identity.
“I don’t want anyone to think, whoever they are—that jumble of identities—is not worthy.”
Ohana's perspectives influenced by her faith
She believes that “we are at our best when we are at our most diverse”—i.e., by acknowledging and respecting that others have different opinions and different ways of life.
Ohana acknowledged in the interview that her faith is important to her, noting that throughout history certain Jewish people have stood up and were not afraid to fight on behalf of others.
“To me, that’s a huge part of being Jewish,” she said.
The Jewish concept tikkun olam really resonates with Ohama. It means “healing the world”, with the word “olam” referring to morals.
“It’s something we owe to the world,” Ohana said. “it’s something we owe to others—just to live in our power.”
For her, an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude is not good enough if it’s not accompanied by actions to advance justice for others.
“It’s what’s led to many of the issues we see in our world today,” Ohana said.
That’s why Pride is so important to Ohana. It’s really rooted in the concept of taking political action on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s ongoing issues that we have to face, that we have to fight for,” she stated.
Others being honoured
Historically, grand marshals of the Vancouver Pride Parade have been people with the 2SLGBT+ community or associated with groups that act on its behalf.
Another of the grand marshals is a queer Indigenous woman of Squamish and Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, Tiyáltelut Kristen Rivers. She’s an elected member of the Squamish Nation Council, playing a key role in creating the first Indigenous rental-assistance program for off-reserve members to help offset the impact of sky-high apartment costs.
In addition, Rivers has promoted a “Living Wages for Families” certification as chair of her nation’s human resources committee. This year, she was elected to the board of Vancity credit union.
Another grand marshal is the Dogwood Monarchist Society, which became a nonprofit under provincial legislation in the 1970s. This enabled it to not only promote social interaction in the LGBT+ community but also to advocate for a democratic monarchy.
Since then, the Dogwood Monarchist Society has raised a great deal of money to address issues of concern, including the HIV crisis of the 1980s. Nowadays, it’s supporting the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Friends for Life Society, Options for Sexual Health, and Qmunity.
Pride parades around the world are known for their razzle-dazzle, which is what another grand marshal brings in abundance. Empress Fancy Pants, the 50th elected empress of the city, operates a “Ministry of JOYous community service and sacred activism”, according to the Vancouver Pride Society website.
Empress Fancy Pants was one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence six years ago and later went on to become Ms. Gay Vancouver 40. One of her greatest accomplishments has been to go on cycling treks for hundreds of kilometres to raise funds for worthy causes, bedecked in full drag and makeup.
“Known for her unique aesthetic, she brings a refreshing take on drag and fundraising,” the website states. “Her manga-style makeup has helped her bring awareness to many causes, locally and internationally. She has fundraised for and participated in HIV/AIDS related events in Thailand, Australia and all over USA.”