By Matt Chang
The Rainbow Resource Centre has its roots as a student grassroots group in the 1970s, but now has extended its work to helping a diverse array of people in need of welcome in Manitoba. Newcomers are a part of this diverse group, which includes refugees and immigrants, as well as international students and even Canadians who may be new to the area. The New Pride of Winnipeg, a social support group, also offers a place where migrants can practice their English and absorb the local culture through movie nights and food.
For the newly arrived LGBT refugees, the welcome may not be as warm in some ethnic communities of Winnipeg, said Sarah Paquin, a counsellor and social worker at the Rainbow Resource Centre. “There is so much to lose, in terms of support,” said Paquin, a counsellor and social worker at the Centre. She said everything from food and housing to emotional support is tied to these communities, so the risk of coming out is not worth it to the majority of newcomers.
Dealing with LGBT refugee claimants has been a relatively new process in Manitoba. Historically, many refugees would come to the country as a group, government-assisted refugees, not self-identified as LGBT. Now, more refugee claimants are crossing the border in small groups or alone. The number of refugee claimants who list LGBT persecution as reason for fleeing has spiked from around 6 to 60 in the past year. Mike Tutthill, the Executive Director, said the official refugee system was not prepared for this increase in number, and has consequently failed them. He said there is a “complete lack of awareness” in legal and resettlement agencies as well as the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB); he and Paquin both said the process is marred by homophobia and heterosexism, even if unwitting. One example Tutthill gave was when a refugee claimant was told by their lawyers to “wear their gayest outfit” when making claims at the refugee board, subscribing to generalized stereotypes.
The lack of sensitivity and prejudice is troubling said Tutthill and Paquin, but they are optimistic that the adoption of new LGBT refugee guidelines will make this a better process for all. Tutthill said that, with this new guideline, refugee officials can be held accountable. Paquin believes the Rainbow Resource Centre’s activism will lead to a safer environment for LGBT refugees.