By Louise Taylor
David Pepper has his Greyhound bus pass, his backpack and his laptop for tweeting, blogging and updating his Facebook page. The man is ready for a 21st-century, one-man awareness-raising trip across the country.
Pepper, a longtime Ottawa activist and organizer, begins his trip today in Winnipeg, where he'll officially launch the North Star Triangle Project. His volunteer effort aims to mobilize members of Canada's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) communities to sponsor men and women being persecuted in other countries for their sexuality.
It's a simple idea: take the bus to 14 cities, meet with GLBT groups and individuals to share his knowledge of refugee issues and what they can do to help someone who has been forced to flee their home country.
Pepper will be visiting Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge, Alta., before returning through Ontario and ending in Windsor by the end of April — 14 cities in all. In May he flies to British Columbia, and in June he heads to the East Coast. He's still looking for contacts in some towns, but gaps in the schedule don't worry him.
"I believe that there are gays and lesbians in every town in this country who want to do something for gay refugees in the rest of the world," says Pepper, 48. "If I can help link them up with resources locally, provincially or nationally in a way that helps them contribute with their own aspirations, that in itself will be a goal met."Homosexuality is still illegal in 77 countries, and carries the death penalty in five, according to Egale, the national GLBT human rights organization.
"Those of us who have been active in GLBT human rights issues for most of our lives are well aware of the horrific stories we heard coming out of Iran in the '80s, where young gay men were hanged, and more recently, in Uganda," says Pepper, referring to the East African nation where a leading gay rights activist was beaten to death earlier this year.Canada grants permanent resident status to an average of 30,000 refugees each year. In a speech last June, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney urged Canadians of all stripes to "step up to the plate" and make use of the government's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program to help people fleeing persecution in their home countries.
He singled out members of the gay and lesbian community, and urged them to organize to sponsor homosexuals "facing persecution simply for who they are."
That challenge stuck with Pepper. Within a few months, he and a handful of friends had begun a "group of five," one category of private sponsorship in which individuals come together to sponsor a United Nations-certified refugee.
They commit to providing initial financial support for his or her settlement and helping the refugee make a home in Canada. Thousands of refugees have been sponsored in this way, in addition to those sponsored by church groups and settlement agencies.
Pepper's group, which includes friend Lisa Hebert and immigration lawyer Mike Bell, has identified a Colombian woman they want to sponsor. They're beginning the paperwork necessary to bring her to Canada, and researching how best to support her as she settles in Ottawa.
Pepper then decided to take it one step farther, and the speaking tour was born. He began networking, offering to lead information sessions through GLBT organizations in cities across the country. He dubbed his effort the North Star Triangle Project, an homage to Canada's role as a safe haven to fleeing American slaves.
"It's really important that more Canadians think about how they can contribute to giving a new home to someone facing persecution, including members of GLBT communities, who know what it's like to suffer discrimination," says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "I'm really hoping that it will speak to the imagination of people across the country. It's a small amount of hardship for David on the Greyhound but even that might remind people of the kind of luxury we live in here, and the broader world out there, where attacks on the rights of gays and lesbians are very acute."Pepper paid $277 for his bus pass for the first leg of the tour, and plans to stay in hostels most of the way, perhaps even sleep on the occasional couch. As for why he's doing it now, while on sabbatical from his job as director of community development at the Ottawa Police Service, Pepper says it's simple.
"I have tons of privilege and one of the privileges I have right now is the luxury of time and resources," he says. "This is about going out and educating and getting the attention of people of goodwill — my generation and the younger generation — who actually care and know that we can help change the world and make it better."