Steinbach Pride: Inside a battle for LGBT rights

Steinbach was famous for being Canada’s most charitable community. Now it’s becoming known for its hostile treatment of its LGBT citizens.

Mika Schellenberg. (Photograph by Rejean Brandt)

Mika Schellenberg. (Photograph by Rejean Brandt)

The gold standard for generosity in the country, by a country mile, is Steinbach, Man. In Manitoba’s third-largest city, the median donation in 2013 was $1,830—a stunning seven per cent of the median annual income in the city. That makes Steinbachers three times more giving than even Canada’s second most charitable community, Abbotsford-Mission, B.C.

The community, located 60 km southeast of Winnipeg, is rightly proud of its reputation for generosity: Whether it’s for the food bank, the arts council or a host of other charities both small and large, Steinbach locals aren’t afraid to chip in, Mayor Chris Goertzen told Maclean’s last year: “It’s a culture of giving. We absolutely have that, whether it’s giving of our time or giving of our resources.”

But there do appear to be limits to that culture. When it comes to giving support to the city’s first Pride march, or giving area schools the ability to create safer spaces for LGBT youth and their families, Steinbachers suddenly seem a whole lot less generous.

Controversy erupted last week over Steinbach’s first Pride march when it became clear that Mayor Goertzen, local MLA Kelvin Goertzen, and local MP Ted Falk were all planning to skip the event. It’s scheduled for July 9, less than a month after the massacre at an Orlando gay club, an event that has become a galvanizing moment for gay rights, fostering wider sympathy for LGBT people around the world.

Initially, Falk said he couldn’t make it because he’d committed to a local francophone community’s annual frog-jumping competition, Frog Follies. This prompted the event’s organizer, Marie-Christine Bruce, to urge the MP to skip her event in St-Pierre-Jolys: “We’re very proud of our festival, but we do not expect to take precedence over an important human rights event,” Bruce tweeted.

That prompted Falk to release a statement of his own: “Even without a scheduling conflict, my decision to not attend would be the same. I’ve been clear on this issue many times, and have made my position public on my values of faith, family and community.” (Falk, Mayor Goertzen and MLA Goertzen all denied requests from Maclean’s for further comment.)

This is the third major dust-up over gay rights in as many years in Steinbach, and the second this spring alone. In May, Steinbach mom Michelle McHale attempted to bring changes to the local school board’s curriculum after her 12-year-old son was bullied for having two moms. The Hanover School Division’s sexual education curriculum bars any discussion of same-sex relationships, which is considered a “sensitive” topic, until high school. Any student who asks about sexual orientation or gender identity is taken aside. The child’s parents are called, which risks outing students who may be struggling with identity issues and turn to a trusted teacher for help.

Trustees refused the change, and outlined some odd and ill-informed arguments in doing so: One, a nurse, suggested this could lead to higher cancer rates. Another suggested it would be akin to white culture being forced onto Indigenous children in residential schools.

Community backlash grew so fierce that McHale and her family left shortly after, relocating to Winnipeg. But it also prompted McHale to help organize Steinbach Pride: “We felt it was really important for those in the LGBTTQI community to see the presence of others, to let them know they are not alone, that they do deserve a safe space to be, regardless of what public opinion is,” she said in an interview.

So far, support appears pretty thin. Steinbach city council released a statement announcing its refusal to “officially endorse the event.” No city businesses, including Steinbach’s five major car dealerships and the Steinbach Credit Union, were willing to say whether or not they support the event. Funk’s Toyota said they are taking an “officially neutral” stance.

Some who privately support Steinbach Pride requested anonymity, fearing backlash from the community. One said they couldn’t speak up after having lost “so many” friends during a previous fight over gay rights. Speaking to Maclean’s would put their job at risk, this person added.

Spectators cheer during the WorldPride Parade in Toronto, Sunday June 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kevin Van Paassen

Spectators cheer during the World Pride Parade, 2014. (Kevin Van Paassen, CP) 

All this puts Steinbach out of step with other conservative Canadian communities who, in the wake of Orlando, have suddenly and dramatically shifted course on gay rights. This month, Surrey, B.C., hosted its first Pride parade and first LGBT prom. This is the same city that for years has refused to raise a Pride flag, on a series of wobbly excuses—there was no pole for it, council once claimed. In 2014, Surrey council reaffirmed a policy barring any flag except the civic, provincial and national flags from Surrey City Hall. The ban curiously exempted the Olympic flag. But earlier this month, without a word of explanation, Surrey suddenly backed down, unveiling a Pride flag and lighting the massive plaza outside City Hall in a rainbow of colours. The Vancouver suburb became one of three conservative B.C. communities to unfurl the multicoloured flag at City Hall for the first time. Surrey’s flags were all at half-mast in solidarity with the victims of “hate” in Orlando, according to Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, who had formerly helped keep the Pride flag off City Hall property.

Young people in Steinbach’s LGBT community described the harmful effects of this kind of hostility. Every young gay person Maclean’s spoke to in reporting this story struggled with suicidal thoughts when they were teenaged students in the Hanover School Division. All say they felt isolated, cornered, despised. Seventeen-year-old Mika Schellenberg recalls being labelled a “dyke.” Damon Klassen, now 29, was a “faggot” through his high school years in neighbouring Niverville. Evan Wiens, 20, remembers being shoved around school halls at Steinbach Secondary School.

Calling someone gay, in this part of Manitoba, was the worst thing you could say—the ugliest insult, says Klassen, who graduated from Niverville Collegiate Institute, part of the Hanover School Division. As a teen, the Winnipeg teacher was once cornered by an adult in the community at the gas station: “I know what you are. I know what you’re doing. You’re not welcome here,” the man said.

During a 2013 controversy in Steinbach over provincial legislation requiring schools to assist any student wishing to form a gay-straight alliance in their school, Wiens, then 17, was interviewed by CBC Manitoba. As the cameras rolled, kids walking past repeatedly shouted gay slurs at him. After Falk suggested that Wiens’s bullying episode might have been “staged,” Wiens agreed to a follow-up interview—on the condition CBC film it far from school property, to protect him from his peers. As he was speaking, someone shouted a slur from a passing car.

Mennonites will sometimes say that with the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. Klassen, who was raised in the Mennonite church, fell back on that faith. “If I just pray harder, it will go away. I won’t have to ever tell anyone. I’ll be fine—normal,” he recalls thinking. “Many times, I would just cry myself to sleep and just be praying: Please God—change me.”

For some, it feels like the only option is to exile themselves from the community. Klassen says he could never return to live in his hometown. Wiens, who is still known in Steinbach as “the kid who caused trouble,” has moved to Winnipeg. Schellenberg wants to move to Winnipeg. McHale has moved to Winnipeg.

McHale’s older son, C.J. Knelsen, who is 17, concedes that the struggle for equality has cost his family dearly. But he’s “very proud” of his mom’s strength, her willingness to stand up for LGBT people: “It’ll all be worth it if it prevents people from being bullied, and helps them feel safe and included in Steinbach,” he says.

Councillor Cari Penner, the only local politician to tell Maclean’s she supports Steinbach Pride, believes the community will come around, though it may take time—just as it took her time to adjust her thinking when a close acquaintance came out to her. “Ultimately, we have to live in today,” she says. “We can’t live 50 years ago. It’s here—we need to come to terms with it.”


Steinbach Pride: Inside a battle for LGBT rights

  1. One does hope that with all the bullying that goes on in this world, that all those who are guilty of bullying would become aware that they are engaging in it. And when they do, by the grace of God, they would say the same as Klassen:

    “Many times, I would just cry myself to sleep and just be praying: Please God—change me.”

    • Why does Mr Falk have to become aware of the movement. Why can he not just let them have thier parade. He does not have to be there.

      • It is not about attending the parade. He has admitted he cannot work for equality rights for all his constituents. He tried to keep gay marriage from being accepted at the last CPC convention. He clearly does not even believe or accept the laws protected in our Charter.

        • The charter was written for all Canadians, not for people that are homosexual. Ted has every right to not go to any event he chooses. It’s insane how LGBT want tolerance, yet they don’t tolerate the choice to not approve of the homosexual lifestyle. Tolerance for everyone, except those who disagree with them. It’s unbelievable.

          • Even without these comments (not to belittle the comments themselves, but more to do with The fullest respect for the article), it’s pretty clear there’s an impasse — but hopefully through some leadership, *by the grace of God,* it doesn’t have to come down to a showdown between minority rights vs majority rules. And no presumptions intended on which side ought to offer said leadership.

    • My comment is very much after the fact but having grown up in Manitoba fifty plus years ago, I take a vested interest in the province as it relates to human and civil rights and human dignity.Steinbach residents claim a Christian background , which would suggest tolerance , compassion, respect , and The acceptance of established law. The speech and actions of so many in their community reveal otherwise. One is reminded of the recent display of hypocrisy by conservative Christians (evangelical types) , during the recent presidential election , 81% of whom sided with the racism, bigotry, misogyny and intolerance displayed by supporters of the political right. Some submitting comments have made reference to what they perceive as disrespect for their negative opinions. When it comes to ones state of being, there can be no ‘informed opposing point of view’. The populace , elected officials , and many of the business people have tarnished the reputation of Steinbach internationally, with all but the most extreme of ideologues.

  2. MP Ted Falk must step down. He has publicly admitted that he will not/cannot support equal rights for all of his constituents.

    • Ted Falk represents the people of Provencher, and they knew very well his stance on LGBT in the recent election, and 90% of the constituency supports him. He must stand for what he believes in, that is the right of every Canadian.

      Forcing someone to go to an event they do not agree with is more in line with ISIS than Canada.

      • Yes we know. Both Mr. Falk and the people of Provencher are bigoted given their apparent stance on the rights of the lesbian and gay population. It is really sad that you are so poorly educated that you believe a young person would choose a sexual orientation that assures them a life where they are virtually tortured by bullies such as yourself. Ted Falk’s Conservative party just voted to embrace gay marriage so perhaps Ted should run as an independent. Further Ted agreed to represent all of his constituents, not just the ones who go to the same church he does or have the same sexual orientation he does. This article is about how a seemingly kind and generous community can let religious beliefs turn it into one that is full of hatred toward a certain group of people who have done nothing but be who they biologically are. How exactly are you different from ISIS? They too torture people in the name of religion. The difference is they don’t pretend to be the most generous community while they are doing it.

        • “And when you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” is something of how the saying goes.

  3. I suggest Nancy McDonald take the time to investigate Michelle McHale, as she is not who you think she is. Michelle was born Reimer, and lived in the small Hanover town of Niverville. She went to church growing up. She went to school in Niverville area growing up. She was not a lesbian, nor was she ever interested in women. She learned Truth from the nearby Mennonite church, and what is right and what is wrong.

    As she grew older she married. Then she was in a bad relationship. She divorced and married again. She was in a bad relationship again. Both times with men. She decided to transition and make the CHOICE to become a lesbian woman, falling in love with Karen Philips–all of this to peddle an agenda in the very region the men came from that she wanted to get back at, the very region the LGBT agenda has next to zero support.

    Michelle’s son was not bullied for him having two moms, he was bullied for something completely unrelated to her lesbian lifestyle. She propped up the agenda anyways. Michelle fled Steinbach after she realized no one in the area supported her lesbian lifestyle. Her own kids do not approve of her lesbian lifestyle.

    Michelle currently resides in Winnipeg, her kids attend the more violent-the more bullying Winnipeg School Division. She has nothing to do with Steinbach or Hanover School Division other than trying to ‘bully’ them into peddling the LGBT agenda–for a LOUD minority.

    • Beave Village – Just jumping in as a parent who grew up in Hanover and now has a child enrolled in Winnipeg School Division – my kid is teased at school way, way less than I was. There are also less fights in his school than I can remember growing up. He is an artsy/musical kid, and he has been teased for his hobbies literally one time at school, and he didn’t think it was a big deal. Bullying policies are strictly enforced, and most importantly kids are taught to celebrate their differences. So while I keep seeing the references to Winnipeg School Division on social media and article comments, I would wholeheartedly choose to send my kids to WSD over Hanover. Comparing what McHale and other human rights activists to bullies is ridiculous. We SHOULD be loud. We should be protesting in the streets to keep our kids safe from the policies promoted in this part of the province.

    • Have you never heard of lesbian and gay individuals who have tried their best to be heterosexual and even married members of the opposite sex in an attempt to “cure” themselves of their so called homosexual affliction. I don’t know what you think this spewing of gossip proves but it is not uncommon when people such as yourself treat homosexual individuals with such disdain that they would do anything not to be who they are. However, it is not something one can cure and I can tell you in big city schools, it is accepted as no big deal because education is not suppressed.

    • On ‘choice’ and ‘lifestyle’, Beave Village seems to think those two terms trump the debate. And based on the information provided, Beave Village does not seem to foresee that it induces further compassion. And the fact that Beave Village flaunts such personal information around further breaks one’s heart in the form of groans and moans.

      And as for accusations of bullying, perhaps as with farting, “he who smelt it dealt it.”

  4. Re: “Mayor Goertzen, local MLA Kelvin Goertzen, and local MP Ted Falk were all planning to skip the event.”

    Good. It will be a much more peasant event without bigots in attendance.

    Re: “Initially, Falk said he couldn’t make it because he’d committed to a local francophone community’s annual frog-jumping competition, Frog Follies.”

    Which , of course, is just an other lie from the freligious frightwing – proven by his later, … er, ‘clarification’:

    “That prompted Falk to release a statement of his own: “Even without a scheduling conflict, my decision to not attend would be the same. I’ve been clear on this issue many times, and have made my position public on my values of faith, family and community.”

    IOW, he wants to impose HIS beliefs on others. Either that, or he considers himself to be a ‘better-o-sexual’. (As in, ‘MY values are better than yours.’ Truly a puke-worthy sentiment.)

    Prejudice is heinous enough on its own, but when it’s religion-induced, it is – OBSERVABLY – corrosive to a CIVILized society.

    Lord I miss the days when ‘christians’ were civil.

    • Religion does not induce prejudice, though prejudice often enough puts on the cloak of religion, and afterwards is so deluded as to think that it is religion itself.

      True religion is civil; it is anathema to “lording it over others.”

      Incidentally, the origin of the word “church” traces to the Dutch “kerk” and the German “kirche” and then to medieval Greek “kurikon”, and then to Greek “kuriakon”, meaning the lord’s, from “kurios”, meaning lord or master. So the question is WHO is the lord and master. It is not a question of religion.

      • Sadly religion is interpreted by those who would use it for their own means to further an agenda of hatred. The parents of lesbian and gay children need to get them out of this community. It likely won’t be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century for decades. Articles like this though are a very good start. The Conservative party should have to answer for their MP given their recent decision to embrace gay marriage as a policy and the school board should be made to answer for the misinformation they are spewing in the schools.

        • And so the alternative view to why McHale is supporting Steinbach Pride is, rather than vengeance, a sense of responsibility and belonging to Steinbach. Reconciliation takes time. Getting out is one option but I suspect there are many other factors important to identity when living in community.

          • Unfortunately among those who are being bullied and denied counselling regarding their confusion regarding sexual orientation issues are children, many of them adolescents. They are a very vulnerable group when it comes to mental health issues such as depression and suicide. We have seen this in places like Windsor and Attawapiskat. They don’t have time for reconciliation to occur. This town needs to get its act together immediately because nothing supersedes the importance of our children’s mental wellness. Children who are becoming aware of their sexual orientation need support, not bullying. They need to counsellors who they can talk to who is assure them that what they are experiencing is normal and acceptable. They need protection from bullying. This town is not providing them with a safe haven. If an adult suffers PTSD under these kinds of circumstances, what happens to a child who doesn’t have a fully developed brain? The prognosis is not good. I am not sure what other factors could possibly be important enough to one’s identity to keep them leaving in a town that spews hatred toward one’s gay child, especially when the mayor, the school board and the MP apparently refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality is a subject they even need to acknowledge as being in existence.

  5. @ Clinton Gibson,

    Re: “The charter was written for all Canadians, not for people that are homosexual.”

    That is a self-contradictory statement, since all gay Canadians are … Canadians.


    • My last comment should have been directed to ‘Beave Village’.

      • P.S.


        It ISN’T a “lifestyle”.

        That’s just another lie your church has taught you.

        • I think Beave Village might have left out the word ‘just’ in front of ‘homosexuals’, since he did say ‘all’ in front of Canadians. Of course gay Canadians are a subset of all Canadians.

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