Jim Egan may not be a familiar name to many Canadians but Historica Canada is hoping to help change that by showcasing this pivotal figure in Canadian LGBT rights.
Heritage Minutes manager Davida Aronovitch, on the line from Toronto, spoke with the Georgia Straight about Historica Canada's launch of its first LGBT–focussed episode in its series of public-service history vignettes called Heritage Minutes.
The story of pioneering gay activist Egan and his lifelong partner Jack Nesbit is the subject of the latest Heritage Minute, released today (June 13) during LGBT Pride Month for distribution on TV stations, specialty platforms, Via Rail, and WestJet.
The bilingual Canadian legacy series began when Charles Bronfman's CRB Foundation released the first Heritage Minutes in 1991, which included episodes about Juno Beach, Montreal goalie Jacques Plante, surgeon Lucille Teasdale, the Underground Railroad, Inuit culture, and more. As the organization changed over time, the Minutes went on hiatus for about a decade before Historica Canada began releasing new episodes in 2012.
"We wanted very much at that time to start to share stories that weren't as well covered in the earlier collection," Aronovitch said. "We wanted to share stories that reflected diverse communities across Canada, maybe whose stories are less likely to be included or documented within history. That was an important mandate for us."
For example, subsequent episodes were made about "boat people" refugees, residential schools, Nova Scotian civil-rights leader Viola Desmond, and more.
Aronovitch said they were seeking to address what hadn't been seen in previous Heritage Minutes yet touched upon subject that all Canadians could see themselves reflected in.
After putting out a call for submissions and receiving pitches from filmmaking teams, Heritage Canada chose a pitch by Steven Dunn and his production company Route Eleven, who also directed a Heritage Minute about Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Aronovitch said the subject Egan and Nesbit's attempt to achieve spousal equality with their landmark Supreme Court Case Egan v. Canada fulfilled many of their objectives.
"This story in particular was very appealing not only because it did what we hope many Heritage Minutes can do, which is it caused change on a national level so it brought about something very significant that impacted all Canadians by virtue of touching the Charter," Aronovitch explained.
In addition, the lengthiness of their struggle offered an opportunity to reveal how ingrained the inequality and discrimination against LGBT people was throughout Canada's past.
"The fact that Jim and Jack's story starts in the '40s allowed us to show a time in history that a lot of Canadians may not be aware of, which is a time when homosexual relationships were illegal and that having homosexual relationships could result in imprisonment and I think that it's something that's really important for Canadians to know and understand because while we are an immensely accepting society and there's so much that we are proud of, our history definitely has aspects that are darker and are important for us to understand and remember so that we know where we came from and we know where we're going in the future."
Although they were unable to locate relatives of Egan, they did receive approval from Nesbit's relatives Ted Nesbit and his son Nicholas, who is a stage actor but was unfortunately too busy to be in the short film.
The Toronto-shot episode was filmed at locations such as the Mahjong Bar (which Aronovitch says bore a "stunning resemblance" to the location they sought to recreate) and a house in the North York area. It also features narration by a Canadian LGBT icon, singer-songwriter k.d. lang.
As a minute is only enough time to convey basic information, Aronovitch said they hope this short film is merely a starting point.
"At the centre of the Heritage Minutes, their whole purpose is obviously to educate but really to get people interested in and talking about Canadian history," she said. "Ultimately our hope is that this Minute will spark a larger conversation and encourage people to go and dig deeper and learn more."
For instance, further information about Egan is available in an entry at one of Historica Canada's other projects, the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Also, the 1996 short documentary "Jim Loves Jack: The James Egan Story" features interviews with Egan, who died in 2000 in Courtenay, B.C.
Furthermore, while the Heritage Minute manages to touch upon Egan's groundbreaking gay journalism and the Supreme Court case, what the succinct timeframe is unable to include is the time period when Egan and Nesbit later moved from Ontario to British Columbia.
Here in B.C., Egan became one of the first openly gay politicians in Canada when he was elected a regional director for Electoral Area B of the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona in 1981. In fact, he was re-elected twice and served until 1993.
Egan and Nesbit cofounded the Comox Valley branch of the Island Gay Society in 1985, and Egan became the president of the North Island AIDS Coalition in 1994.
As if that wasn't enough, Egan also became involved in B.C. environmental activist groups such as Society for the Prevention of Environmental Collapse and the Save Our Straits Committee.
In this era of Pride celebrations and rainbow crosswalks cropping up everywhere from major urban centres to small towns and rural areas, it can be easy to forget that recent social progress has transpired rapidly within a relatively short time period.
"I think that a lot of Canadians would be surprised that the rights that Jim and Jack were fighting for in the '90s, when they brought this Supreme Court challenge, were denied," Aronovitch said. "That seems maybe more recent than some people could understand knowing that it was just 10 years later we saw a very significant milestone, which is [the legalization of] same-sex marriage [in 2005]."
Aronovitch said Historica Canada is considering other LGBT topics and intend to make more, but have no confirmed plans to announce at the moment. She added that they want to show not only historical moments for Canadians to be proud of, but also points in time to learn from.
"We see these articles coming out recently [that] Canada is a leader in LGBTQ2 rights—that's wonderful," she said. "Certainly there have been points in history where those rights didn't exist so we think that it's really important to feel pride in how far we've come but also to understand history that informs that."More