VIDEO: B.C. gay rights activist featured in latest Heritage Minute

Jim Egan, who lived in Courtenay in his later years, was a strong advocate for the LGTBQ2 community

A pioneer in gay rights activism who called Vancouver Island home in his later years is the star of Historica Canada’s most recent Heritage Minute.

Jim Egan (born in Toronto in 1921, died in Courtenay in 2000) was an activist, writer, and politician. He was one of the first Canadians to write long-form pieces in the news media from an openly gay perspective and became a grand marshal of the 1995 Toronto Pride Parade after taking a pension fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The latest minute, released Tuesday, highlights Egan’s landmark Supreme Court challenge in 1995, which arose after his partner Jack Nesbit was denied the spousal allowance benefit provided under the Old Age Security Act on the basis of his sexual orientation.

Though the couple lost their court challenge, it paved the way for the Supreme Court to rule that sexual orientation would be protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom — a landmark milestone for the country’s LGBTQ2 community. Egan and Nesbit were subsequently named grand marshals of the Toronto Pride Parade.

Jeff Stickler, one of the producers of the Comox Valley-based Queer Culture organization, said Egan and Nesbit were instrumental in acquiring spousal benefits and pension rights for the LGBTQ2 community.

“That was a part of legitimizing us as real citizens who are not breaking laws, who are just naturally in love with same-sex partners,” Stickler, said. “It furthered the legitimization of our way of life and it enabled people to open their minds and the laws eventually changed.”

Historica Canada president and CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith said Egan and Nesbit’s story is the first LGBTQ2-focused Heritage Minute the organization has produced.

“We wanted something that — even though it doesn’t necessarily speak to everyone — is recognizable as a big milestone to people in those communities,” Wilson-Smith said. “Certainly, the recognition that sexual orientation should be covered under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a big deal.”

Wilson-Smith said the timing of the Heritage Minute was deliberate, considering June is recognized as Pride Month for the LGBTQ2 community.

A life of activism

Egan was born and raised in Toronto. After four years in the Merchant Navy, he met Nesbit upon his return to Ontario in 1948. The two would remain partners for more than 50 years, until Nesbit’s death in 2000.

As a way to challenge homophobia and misconceptions about the gay community, Egan started penning letters to Toronto-based newspapers in the late 1940s.

His letters aimed to counter the negative portrayal of the LGBTQ2 community that still existed in the press at the time. According to Historica Canada, Egan was one of the first Canadians to do so and became known as an outspoken advocate of the LGBTQ2 community.

Egan and Nesbit eventually relocated to B.C. in the 1960s to live a more private life, according to Historica Canada. The pair settled in Courtenay, where they lived until their deaths in 2000.

”I know Jack and Jim had a home here in Courtenay and they used to have monthly socials where they invited gay men from all over the North Island,” said Stickler.

“They would open their home, to basically have the time to let their hair down, network, and meet one another. That was back in the time where there was nowhere for us to socialize.”

While living in the Valley, Egan became the Area B director for the Comox-Strathcona Regional District from 1981-1993. The couple also co-founded the Comox Valley chapter of the Island Gay Society and Egan was president of the North Island AIDS Coalition in 1994.

It was while living in the Valley where the couple launched their court case.

“Even though they lost in one sense, the recognition regarding the rights of sexual orientation was a major step forward,” said Wilson-Smith, adding that the scene in which they await the court’s verdict depicts them in their house in Courtenay.

Heritage Minutes are 60-second short films that highlight an important moment or figure in Canadian history. They were seen more than 116,000 times on TC last year and millions of times online, according to Wilson-Smith.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Frustration grows in Ucluelet as locked gate puts school garden in peril

“You walk by there and it’s just dead. Everything’s dry and yelling for water,” Liisa Nielsen said.

QUIZ: How much do you know about British Columbia?

On this B.C. Day long weekend, put your knowledge of our province to the test

Ucluelet fire crew extinguishes residential blaze

Ucluelet’s fire chief is praising his crew for making short work of a residential blaze on Tuesday.

DFO reports unusually high whale mortalities in 2020

“It’s so important to have all these eyes and ears in the community reporting these deaths.”

Tofino housing project criticized at public hearing

Town’s council hosts first public hearing since start of COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. records 146 new COVID-19 cases through long weekend

More that 28 people tested positive for the virus each day since Friday

Canucks tame Minnesota Wild 4-3 to even NHL qualifying series

J.T. Miller leads Vancouver with goal and an assist

COVID-19 vaccine efforts provide hope but no silver bullet to stop pandemic: Tam

There are more than two dozen vaccines for COVID-19 in clinical trials around the world

Two people die in propane heated outdoor shower near Princeton

Couple was attending a long weekend gathering

Study shines light on what makes LGBTQ+ youth feel safe in a community

The study goes beyond looking at school or family supports

Alberta to require masks at schools this fall, but still no mandate in B.C.

B.C. students are also set to return to classrooms in September

B.C. to allow customers to buy cannabis online for in-store pickup at private shops

Age verification will still be required inside the store

30% of British Columbians would ‘wait and see’ before taking COVID vaccine: poll

Some are concerned about side effects, while others don’t think the virus is a big deal

Most Read