The small city of Steinbach celebrated its first Pride march Saturday.
Thousands turned out from the city and around the province to support gender and sexual diversity and human rights.
Manitoba RCMP say about 3,000 people had gathered ahead of the march. Steinbach Pride says the large turnout is an accomplishment.
At first, organizers only expected a few hundred people to attend.
They faced controversy leading up to the march and had trouble securing permits for the march. Steinbach city council never officially endorsed the march, and was told people would have to stick to the sidewalk because of safety concerns and construction.
Manitoba RCMP helped Steinbach Pride secure a route so people could walk through the streets. They also joined the march and provided resources to ensure safety.
"I think everyone really everyone recognized the importance of the day in that regard," said Commanding Officer Scott Kolody, who marched in the event.
"I think this sends a message, bible belt or not, it's time,” said Steinbach Pride organizer Michelle McHale. “People are people and need to be accepted because they are people.”
The march travelled three blocks through Steinbach from E.A. Friesen Park to City Hall.
There was also controversy about who did not attend the event. Provencher MP Ted Falk did not attend. He asked organizers to be respectful of his choice not to attend. The MLA for the area, Kelvin Goertzen and Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen both had previous commitments.
Some in the LGBTQ community say politicians not showing up is an indication attitudes have not changed in the so-called Bible Belt in Manitoba.
With such a big crowd, organizers say the event was a success and a sign times have changed in Steinbach.
The event has drawn attention from across the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a message to share at Steinbach’s first-ever Pride March. St. Boniface-St.Vital Liberal MP Dan Vandal read a message on behalf of the Prime Minister.
“Several weeks ago our office was called from the organizing committee of Steinbach Pride and they wanted us to connect them to the Prime Minister, so that he could send a message at the Pride parade,” Vandal told CTV on Friday.
“It’s just a way to show support to our gay, our bisexual, our transgender community,” Vandal told CTV on Friday. “As a government and as an individual in 2016 we are a party of human rights and we want to send a message that every Canadian is important regardless of the colour of your skin, regardless of your religion, regardless of your sexuality.”
“There will be a lot of love in Steinbach Saturday morning.”
The message read, in part: "Thank you to the organizers of this amazing event for their dedication to promoting unity, inclusion and awareness of sexual and gender diversity."
Saturday marked a historic day, especially for people who struggled to come out in Steinbach.
18-year old Mason Godwaldt was born a girl, but identifies as male.
"I actually dropped out of school because there was a lot of bullying happening,” said Mason Godwaldt. “I was slammed into lockers, followed around at school, they called me names like every day, " he said.
Godwaldt said the large turnout makes him feel there is hope for the LGBTQ people in Steinbach.
University of Winnipeg professor Catherine Taylor also spoke at the Pride March.
On Friday morning, Taylor presented the results of a new national survey on schools and LGBTQ youth to the Canadian Association of School System Administrators.
The study found that most school administrators want to offer specific supports to enhance the safety and well-being of LGBTQ students.
“There’s just tremendous support that we received from school districts across the country,” Taylor said. “There’s been a terrific response rate from school districts representing half, 50 per cent, of the schools and teachers and students in this country.”
Taylor said there’s still work to be done.
A policy in Hanover School Division prohibits teachers from talking about same sex families and LGBTQ issues in elementary school classrooms.
Taylor said she hopes the policy changes at “a swifter than glacial pace.”
“This has been a very, very long time coming. The majority of school districts in Canada have moved farther than Hanover School Division has for sure.”
- With files from Josh Crabb and Beth Macdonell