Nancy Nicol

Queer Nineties

© 2009 Intervention Video Inc. (91 min., DVD)
Directed and Produced by Nancy Nicol



At the beginning of the 1990s lesbians and gays had no recognition of their relationships in law. While most provinces had passed protection from discrimination in provincial human rights legislation, the Canadian government still had not included non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Federal Human Rights Act. The Government found itself caught between the growing equality claims of lesbians and gays, and opposition from conservative forces who argued that lesbian and gay equality would undermine the traditional family. The 1990s would prove to be a turning point.

Spurred on by victories on human rights, more and more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were living their lives openly, creating families, raising children and demanding change.

The Queer Nineties brings to life the key battles for lesbian and gay rights during the 1990s through the voices of community leaders, constitutional lawyers and activists who were at the forefront of the movement during this critical decade. Director Nancy Nicol has brought together a rich resource of interview and archival materials on key events across Canada. The result is a feature documentary, edited in five parts to facilitate use of the work for educational use. The work is an essential document for those interested in lesbian and gay rights history, sexuality studies, studies in law and society and histories of social movements.


Part One looks at the debate on Bill 167 in the Ontario legislature in June 1994.  Bill 167 was the first attempt to pass legislation recognizing same-sex relationships in Canada. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario and the Campaign for Equal Families mobilized to win relationship recognition for same-sex couples; however, Bill 167 was defeated at second reading in a storm of homophobic rhetoric in the Ontario legislature. Lesbian and gay demonstrators cried “shame, shame” as they were driven from the Ontario legislature by police wearing latex gloves. That night some 5000 demonstrators converged on Queen’s Park to protest the government’s vote and weeks later some 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the Ontario Legislature in the largest Pride event to date. Part One also follows the story of the first successful same-sex partner adoption case in Ontario in 1995, won by four lesbian couples one year following the defeat of Bill 167 in the Ontario legislature.

Interviewees in part one include: Mary Woo Sims, Tom Warner, Michael Davenport, Bob Gallagher, Chris Higgins and Chris Phibbs and their son Zak, Laurie Arron – from the Campaign for Equal Families and the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario; El-Farouk Khaki, immigration lawyer specializing in lesbian and gay refugee and immigration issues; MPP Marilyn Churley, member of the NDP in 1994; Susan Ursel, lawyer for the Foundation for Equal Families and the Ontario adoption case.


Part Two turns to Surrey, British Columbia in the mid 1990s. In April 1997 a teacher with the Surrey board of Education in B.C., James Chamberlain, introduced three new books to his kindergarten class: Asha’s Mums, Belinda’s Bouquet, and One Dad, Two Dads. The Surrey Board of Education chair and trustees voted 4-3 to ban the use of the books. The Surrey School Board was a test case which would test whether ‘Christian family values’ could be used to bar any use of lesbian and gay educational resources in the schools. What followed was a 7-year-long legal battle up to the Supreme Court, costing Surrey taxpayers over one million in legal bills.

Interviewees in Part Two include: Joe Arvay, counsel for the Surrey case representing James Chamberlain and the B.C. Teachers Federation; James Chamberlain and Donelda Henderson, teachers from the Surrey Board; David Chudnovsky, former B.C. Teachers Federation President; Kim Forester, a lesbian mother with two boys in the Surrey school who filed a human rights case against the Surrey Board and Lorraine Weir, literary theorist and an expert witness in the Surrey Board case.           


Throughout the 1990s ethno-racial community organizing grew in strength and confidence alongside of older predominately white gay-liberation groups. Their efforts contributed to the strength and maturity of the movement.  Part Three focuses on the establishment and work of Asian Community AIDS Services and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention and their work at countering homophobia within ethno-racial communities in Canada on the one hand, and racism within queer organizations on the other hand.  Part Three continues with a look at the important contribution of lesbian and gay caucuses within trade unions. Some of the earliest battles for benefits and rights for same sex couples were taken forward by the trade union movement. In a key case, Nancy Rosenberg, a lawyer at CUPE's national office in Ottawa, fought for the extension of survivor pensions to same-sex couples. The CUPE/Rosenberg case succeeding in forcing the Federal government to rewrite the Income Tax Act of Canada to recognize same-sex couples.

Interviews in Part Three include: Douglas Stewart, Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention; Dr. Alan Li and Keith Wong, Gay Asians AIDS Project, and Asian Community AIDS Services; Sue Genge, Human Rights Dept., Canadian Labour Congress; Fred Hahn, Pink Triangle Committee, CUPE and Nancy Rosenberg, Lawyer, CUPE.


Throughout the 1990s more and more gays and lesbians were taking their cases to the courts.  The equality provisions of the Charter of Rights, brought into effect in 1985, would prove to hold the key to change. By the mid 1990s several key cases began to reach the Supreme Court of Canada. Part Four looks at the key charter cases of the 1990s which would ultimately successfully challenge the exclusion of lesbians and gay men from relationship and family recognition in Canada (Egan, Rosenberg, M. v H.)

The Supreme Court ruling on M. v H. and a growing number of charter victories by gays and lesbians resulted in a wave of legislation across Canada. At the Federal level, the government passed legislation recognizing same-sex relationships in June 2000.

Part Four comes back to the Surrey School board book ban when it reaches the Supreme Court of Canada in 2002. By that time, gays and lesbians had won legal recognition of their relationships throughout Canada.

Interviewees in Part Four include: Joe Arvay, counsel for Jim Egan and Jack Nesbit, and legal counsel for James Chamberlain and the B.C. Teachers Federation against the Surrey School Board ban; Martha McCarthy, Lawyer for 'M' in M. v H. and Lorraine Weir, literary theorist and expert witness in the Surrey School Board book ban case.


In 2000, the government amended the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) extending access to survivor pensions to same-sex couples. But people whose partners had died before Jan. 1, 1998 were excluded. Lawyer Douglas Elliott launched a class action suit claiming that the denial of survivor benefits violated the Charter. Part Five looks at the CPP case, including interviews with two of the key litigants, George Hislop (Toronto) and Gail Meredith (Vancouver). George had a long history of activism in fighting for gay rights dating back to the 1950s. He was a founder of the Community Homophile Association in 1971 and the first openly gay person to run for public office in Canada, when he ran as a candidate in the municipal election in Toronto. George met his life partner, Ron Shearer in 1958 and they were together for 28 years until Ron’s death in 1986. Gail Meredith is a long time trade union and community activist, whose partner died after a debilitating illness. The CPP case dragged on for years as the government mounted appeal after appeal to lower court decisions. Finally the government agreed to start paying pensions in July 2005 pending the appeal. George Hislop received his first cheque in August.  On October 9, 2005 George Hislop died, at the age of 78.  The case continued in his name. On March 1, 2007, The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously, that the denial of survivor pensions to same-sex spouses whose partners died before 1998, was unconstitutional. Nine years after launching their case, gays and lesbians whose partners had died between the proclamation of the Charter in 1985 and 1998 could now claim survivor pensions. It was the largest financial settlement for gays and lesbians in world history.

Interviewees in Part Five include: Douglas Elliott, Lawyer for CPP claimants; George Hislop and Gail Meredith, Litigants in the CPP case.

Principal Credits

Produced and directed by: Nancy Nicol

Composer:  Alyssa Ryvers

Camera: Robin Bain, Carolyn Wong, Nancy Nicol and Colin Allison

Editor: Nancy Nicol

Research and writing and Narration: Nancy Nicol

Collaborative research: Miriam Smith

Sound editing: Jakob Theisen, Kitchen Sync, Toronto

Mix: Ryan Aktari, Kitchen Sync, Toronto

On-line: Andrew Mandziuk, Fearless Films, Toronto

2009 Intervention Video Inc.


Funded by:                        

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

The Ontario Arts Council

The Canada Council for the Arts


Special thanks to all the participants who agreed to be a part of this film.

And a very special thanks to my spouse, Phyllis Waugh.