A Minute in History

“They have a new Minute that focuses on Indigenous people and residential schools, while another examines Viola Desmond and the experience of African Canadians. This is the first time they have explored the LGBTQ community in Canada.”

For the first time in the history of Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes, the newest segment focuses on LGBTQ history in Canada, specifically Jim Egan, Canada’s first gay rights activist. Acting as a historical consultant for the Minute was Queen’s University history professor Steven Maynard, MA'87.

“Historica Canada is trying to broaden the scope of its Heritage Minutes and make them more inclusive,” says Dr. Maynard, who worked on the project for over a year. “They have a new Minute that focuses on Indigenous people and residential schools, while another examines Viola Desmond and the experience of African Canadians. This is the first time they have explored the LGBTQ community in Canada.”

Mr. Egan was chosen as the subject of the Minute because of his work as an activist in 1949 when he regularly wrote to publications criticizing inaccurate portrayals of lesbian and gay people. He also wrote letters to politicians advocating for fairer treatment of lesbians and gays under the law. This activism took place years before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, and it is captured in the opening sequence of the Minute.

Prior to that time, gay men were often branded as criminal sexual psychopaths and dangerous sexual offenders. These labels provided for indeterminate prison sentences.

The Minute focuses on what Mr. Egan was best known for – fighting for the legal rights of same-sex couples in Canada. In 1986, he began collecting Canada Pension Plan benefits and applied for spousal benefits for his partner Jack Nesbit the following year. The application was denied. The couple took the challenge all the way to the Supreme Court and despite losing that challenge, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to include sexual orientation as a prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

a minute in history screenshot

Queen's University alumnus Steven Maynard, MA'87, worked as a consultant on the newest Heritage Minute featuring Jim Egan and LGBTQ rights in Canada. 

“Heritage Minutes are a familiar part of Canadian culture and I think this one will be well received,” says Dr. Maynard. “With the Prime Minister’s recent apology for historical discrimination against LGBTQ Canadians and with upcoming Pride celebrations across the country, this Minute comes at just the right time.”

In addition to suggesting sources and storylines, Dr. Maynard reviewed the scripts provided by Historica Canada to ensure the accuracy of the Minute.

Experiential learning is one of the key components of Dr. Maynard’s classes at Queen’s. He’s looking forward to using the Egan Minute in his courses but notes, “It’s important to take something like this and move it outside the classroom so it has the greatest impact. All Canadians should understand this moment in our history and that is why it was so important to me to work on it with Historica Canada.”

This story originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette