|Between 200-300 protestors showed up to counter an anti-SOGI event in Oak Bay Thursday night. People chanted, sang and waved LGBTQ+ and transgender pride flags outside the Windsor Pavilion as the event went ahead. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
A little girl in a rainbow-patterned dress skipped through the crowd outside the Windsor Pavilion Thursday night as more than 200 people chanted, “SOGI saves lives” at the group gathered inside.
There might have been picnics, dance music, glitter, face paint and bubbles blowing through the wind, but the crowd wasn’t there to celebrate – they were there to protest the The Erosion of Freedom event, hosted by anti-SOGI speaker Jenn Smith, who speaks against the SOGI 123 (sexual orientation and gender identity) resources taught in B.C. schools. Victoria was the event’s final Vancouver Island stop after hosting in Campbell River, Duncan and Nanaimo.
But since it was announced, the event had been a source of controversy in the community – both towards organizers and the District of Oak Bay, which received backlash for allowing it to go ahead in one its community spaces.
Protest movements cropped up online to counter the evening’s program, including a protest created by Greater Victoria School District trustee Ryan Painter that drew hundreds to the Windsor Pavilion.
“What was coming here to Victoria was something that was not safe, and it was creating a lot of fear,” Painter said. “And I wanted to create a space of love, a space of inclusion and a space of hope, which is what we’ve done here tonight.”
Alex Farquhar, Ashley Moledzki and her wife Natalie sat in camp chairs, holding signs that said, “Trans rights are human rights” and “SOGI is the water that helps people bloom.”
The trio had come out from Langford to protest the event.
“SOGI was something we all needed earlier in life,” said Farquhar. “Honestly if I’d had SOGI 123 I probably wouldn’t have tried to commit suicide.
[Kids] should never have to feel the way we did. If we can make it better for them, then damn right we should.”
Still, the Pavilion was heavy with undercurrents of frustration and anger which eventually bubbled over in the form of tearful and often heated confrontations between event attendees and protesters.
And while the Erosion of Freedom talk went ahead inside a small, hot, upstairs room inside the Windsor Pavilion, the speakers could hardly be heard over the chants, songs and whistles of the protesters filling the room and the field below.
“People like her are the reason my best friend is dead,” shouted one woman, gesturing to Jenn Smith, holding a microphone at the front of the room.
Attendees and organizers railed back at protesters, claiming their right to freedom of speech was under attack.
Attendee Dave Moores said he came “in support of free speech” but that it was too loud to hear anything.
“There was cowbells, fire alarms, a lot of shouting, there was a lot of noise… in an attempt to silence the speaker and not have civil dialogue,” he said.
Moores said he had come to the event for educational reasons.
“I wanted to see what was being spoken about, I wanted to see what the topic of discussion was. I kind of had a summary of what was going to be spoken about, but I didn’t know exactly,” he said, adding that he was not surprised by the protest presence at the venue.
Inside the building, tensions continued to escalate until a fire alarm was pulled. Once the Oak Bay Police and the Oak Bay Fire Department arrived, the building was evacuated and the event was officially over.
For his part, Painter felt the evening was a successful show of support for SOGI 123 and the LGBTQ+ community.
“There were so many people here tonight,” he said. “It shows that the South Island, we’re not about hate. We’re all about love.”