Op-ed: Our path to the Capital Pride parade

A corporate journey to celebrate all gender and sexual expressions
EDC
Export Development Canada shows its pride as the Ottawa-based organization raises the rainbow flag at its Slater Street headquarters for the fourth year in a row. Photo provided

This Sunday, we are marching. Together with more than 125 of my colleagues, we are marching in support of the LGBTQ2+ communities in Canada, in Ottawa and at Export Development Canada.

It might seem like a small gesture, but taking part in this weekend’s Capital Pride Festival parade represents the apex of an ambitious year that’s seen diversity and inclusion reach new heights at one of the National Capital Region’s largest employers.

Our path to the pride parade has taken four years to travel and, like many similar journeys, our momentum was stop-and-start. At every point along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how an organization can become one that’s truly open and welcoming to the LGBTQ2+ community.

The first step along this path was in 2015 when EDC created a committee to help address four pillars of equity – women, Indigenous people, those with disabilities and visible minorities. 

At the time, there was very limited dialogue in our offices around issues related to diversity and inclusion. If nothing else, this move at least signaled an understanding within the organization of the importance of issues facing minorities and traditionally underrepresented people.

Still, a small group of employees – myself included – were experiencing gaps specifically affecting the LGBTQ2+ community. It was safe to assume there were people inside the building who didn’t feel comfortable and safe bringing their whole selves to work. 

Support from the ground up

That’s when members of the LGBTQ2+ community and our allies decided to launch a grassroots resource group.

Because of the limited dialogue, we really didn’t have much visibility on the experiences of the people we wanted to reach. But our objective was clear: provide LGBTQ2+ employees a safe environment where each is free to express their thoughts, values, opinions and identity without any fear.

During the nascent years of the resource group, members were sometimes told being gay “isn’t a big deal,” or asked whether the organization really “needs this.” All I could think of was how difficult those questions and statements could be for someone who was feeling vulnerable. 

Personally, my experience coming out as LGBTQ2+ was full of anguish and dread. Although I felt an overwhelming feeling of welcoming when I eventually did come out to my EDC colleagues during my first year here, there was undoubtedly room to make the process leading up to it easier. 

So, the resource group set about building and maintaining an environment where every member of the community, regardless of their status, could feel as welcome and safe as I did after coming out. Part of that work included promoting visibility to really make diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ2+ topics something everyone could talk about. Realistically, no one will know whether there are problems and what those problems are, if no one’s talking.

We also reviewed the organization’s human resource policies early on and successfully lobbied to have them updated to include protection against discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and sexuality.

Our resources were limited, but we did what we could, sharing our stories through internal blogs and talks to employees in the hopes of letting anyone who felt they had to hide, lie or conform know they had an outlet and support network. 

To further bridge our relatively small group with the wider EDC community, we hosted a 5 à 7 social for all employees in 2016. Later that year, we flew a pride flag throughout Capital Pride Week.

There was no question we were gaining visibility, but it wasn’t enough.

Buy-in from leadership

Despite our intentions, we didn’t feel our group was reaching everyone we wanted; any momentum we experienced after launching had waned. When we went back to the drawing board to understand how to move the dial more on LGBTQ2+ topics, we realized we needed more uptake from corporate leaders, particularly those at the very top. 

We needed them with pitch in with their voices and their actions. 

So, starting last year, the resource group began actively engaging the more senior people at the organization. Having a grassroots group was fundamental to our success, but the reality is, to make real changes you need support, resources, champions and influencers. 

I have to say, proudly, it didn’t take much convincing and our milestones are quickly piling up. 

That 5 à 7 is now an annual event, and it’s also become tradition to raise the pride flag outside our headquarters on Slater Street during Pride Week. Both offer clear reminders to everyone walking into EDC that they’re entering a safe and welcoming place, where all forms of sexual and gender expression are embraced. 

Last year, we started giving a short presentation every month to new hires, letting them know about EDC’s approach to diversity and inclusion and, importantly, letting LGBTQ2+ employees know about available resources and supports.

This year, we opened gender inclusive bathrooms with private showers and changing areas, and are close to publishing a learning module geared toward building awareness and outlining the knowledge necessary to promote a safe and open environment for EDC’s LGBTQ2+ community (something we hope will be replicated for broader diversity and inclusion projects).

What we’ve learned while travelling this path for four years is, yes, it takes a village. But not a homogenous group of villagers. In order to make a difference – to make a workplace truly open and inclusive – we needed people from all walks of life. 

The grassroots group of LGBTQ2+ employees took those difficult first steps. With support from a wider group of employees, our gait increased and we reached milestones faster. Now, with explicit encouragement and action from the most senior levels of the corporation, it feels like we’re at a gallop. 

Combining the bottom-up and top-down approaches has led us here, to a day where more than 125 employees – including the five core standing members of our LGBTQ2+ steering committee and three senior executives – get to march in Ottawa’s Pride parade. 

We get to be an example to other employers in Ottawa, showing that the more visible a corporation is in its belief about equal rights for everybody, the more inclusive they become. Because being inclusive of our diversities will have positive impacts in perpetuity.

Andrea Gardella is a senior economist at Export Development Canada and is a member of the steering committee of their LGBTQ2+ Resource Group.