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

(Photo courtesy of David Ogilvie)
Update: No injuries after van fire in West Kelowna

Two fire engines raced to the scene, on Dobbin Road near Scotiabank

Hiawatha RV Park will be demolished starting in February, to make room for a new condo development. Residents have four months to leave. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘I don’t know what to do’; Another Hiawatha resident pleas for eviction extension

Hiawatha RV Park residents have four months to leave the neighbourhood

Kalamalka Lake which connects Lake Country to Vernon and feeds into Okanagan Lake. (File photo)
Response sought to Okanagan Lake level management shortfalls

Water board adds support to Peachland council’s call to change how lake level is managed

In record numbers, Central Okanagan parents were turning to remote learning for their kids this school year. (File photo)
COVID-19 fuels Central Okanagan remote learning expansion

Enrolment for K-9 in eSchool program climbs from 40-50 to 700

(DiStefano Jaud Architecture)
Kelowna city staff wave down proposed Byrns Road development

Developer proposes gas station, car wash, liquor store, commercial buildings, in agricultural area

Physical distancing signs are a common sight in B.C. stores and businesses. THE CANADIAN PRESS
272 more COVID-19 cases for B.C., outbreak at oil sands project

Three new health care outbreaks, three declared over

A rock slide is blocking one lane off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Sicamous. (Cindy Schedlosky/Facebook)
Rock slide closes one lane of Trans-Canada Highway near Sicamous

Single-lane alternating traffic is in effect.

Vernon-North Okanagan police responded to a property dispute in the 11000 block of Westside Road Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Google Maps)
Property dispute leads to police presence near Vernon

An altercation between two individuals prompted a police response to the Westside Road area

Titled “Dutch Underground - Laren 1944,” Mineke Spencer’s parents Johanna and Albert Jan Koeslag (centre) sit with their 13 children, who ranged in age from seven (Minike) to 28. Mineke is the little girl with the big white bow in the front, left, beside sister Marie, also with a white bow. (Contributed)
Fearless allies: Shuswap woman reflects on childhood in Dutch Resistance

Mineke Spencer was three-years-old when Germany invaded her home in the Netherlands

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 1987 file photo, actor Sean Connery holds a rose in his hand as he talks about his new movie “The Name of the Rose” at a news conference in London. Scottish actor Sean Connery, considered by many to have been the best James Bond, has died aged 90, according to an announcement from his family. (AP Photo/Gerald Penny, File)
Actor Sean Connery, the ‘original’ James Bond, dies at 90

Oscar-winner was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Several police vehicles were seen at the Sagmoen farm on Salmon River Road in Silver Creek on Thursday night, Oct. 29, 2020. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)
UPDATE: One person arrested, released following police presence at Sagmoen farm

RCMP were at Silver Creek property where remains of Vernon woman were found in 2017

Most Read