The 1019 Report
Local Journalism Initiative
Vaudreuil-Soulanges falls short when it comes to resources supporting the LGBTQ2+ community – at least according to Vivianne LaRivière, an activist who spent decades raising awareness about queer issues in the region from her home base in St. Lazare.
“It’s about more than just not having a gay bar,” LaRivière said. “There are no high-profile events celebrating diversity and inclusion. Or crisis hotlines geared towards queer teens dealing with suicidal thoughts. Or community groups supporting gay seniors living in isolation. Or any of the myriad of other resources that exist in places like Montreal and Toronto.”
It’s a thought echoed by Westwood Senior High School guidance counsellor Gianni Verelli. Because of a lack of resources in the region, he often finds himself directing LGBTQ2+ students in crisis to the big city.
“Transportation is a huge problem for a lot of these kids, and they often aren’t able to get a lift to a group or a centre that’s so far away,” Verelli said. “It would be nice if they could have a resource that’s closer to home.”
It came as a relief for them when, in 2019, the MRC of Vaudreuil-Soulanges granted $40,000 to the West Island LGBTQ2+ Centre to expand its services into the region. The goal was to develop resources – both in-person and online – that stood independently from the West Island counterpart and catered to gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people in the MRC.
The project has yet to be established in the two years since, however, and LaRivière’s optimism is turning to impatience.
“Why is this taking so long?” she asked. “What happened to all of the money?”
She’s not alone. James Armstrong, a Rigaud resident who ran a small LGBTQ2+ social group in the area prior to the pandemic, says he was consulted twice about his hopes for the initiative, but has yet to see any concrete progress.
“The people in charge need to dust off their walking boots, stop sitting around and talking about it, and actually start doing something,” Armstrong said.
Those behind the project say they understand the frustration.
David Hawkins, the executive director of the West Island LGBTQ2+ Centre, admits the expansion was put on hold for a year, but promises things will get moving by the end of November.
“We know it’s taking longer than we anticipated, and we know this should have been launched earlier,” Hawkins said. “But we’re finally drawing close to the finish line.”
“This isn’t something that’s falling by the wayside,” added Julie Lemieux, mayor of Très-Saint-Rédempteur, the first openly transgender person to have been elected as a mayor in Canada. She has been heavily involved in the initiative since the beginning and will serve as its president.
The pandemic is to blame for the delays, according to Lemieux and Hawkins. Plans to launch programming in 2020 were scrapped at the onset of COVID-19, and the project has been in limbo ever since.
Pandemic delayed plans
There was also the matter of finding a qualified coordinator to manage the expansion, which Hawkins said proved more difficult than he anticipated due to burnout among his staff during the pandemic.
But locals like Armstrong remain unconvinced.
“The pandemic has provided some people with a handy excuse,” he shot back. “Yes, it’s a serious situation. But if this had been 20 years ago, things would be happening, regardless of whether there was a pandemic or not.”
As for the funds granted by the MRC, Hawkins said $15,000 remain in reserve. The rest went towards building a web platform, creating branded merchandise, as well as hiring a coordinator and graphic designer.
Hawkins promises safe space
The initiative will launch next month with a virtual weekly meeting for LGBTQ2+ youth in the region, where new members can “build connection with others who share common experiences and concerns.”
A second weekly support group geared specifically towards Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents who identify as transgender will be added later.
While the resources will be strictly online at first, Hawkins is toying with the possibility of holding in-person meetings at libraries or community centres throughout the region, depending on whether there is a demand in specific municipalities.
“It’s too much of a financial risk to secure a physical space when there’s a real possibility that we won’t have access to it,” he explained, referring to ever-changing COVID restrictions.
He later hopes to bring over the activities he holds at the West Island centre, including pot lucks, game nights, workshops and movie viewings.
There will also be an outreach program that will see trained volunteers hosting presentations at local high schools.
“The potential is limitless,” the executive director said. “In a year or two, I’d like to think we’ll have a physical location, well-attended online programs, and mobile support groups in each municipality.”
David Hawkins, the executive director of the West Island LGBTQ2+ Centre, says plans to begin offering services in the Vaudreuil Soulanges region beginning in November.