A pioneer in gay rights activism who called the Comox Valley 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.
Historica Canada released the Egan-related Heritage Minute on June 13. Heritage Minutes are 60-second short films that highlight an important moment or figure in Canadian history. The minute-long clip 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,” he 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,” he 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.
“I’d say it’s not only a big deal for people in those communities but for anyone who believes in equality overall,” he said.
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 were broadcast over 116,000 times on television last year and millions of times online, according to Wilson-Smith. The clips are also viewed on WestJet flights and Via Rail trains.