Located in the northeastern corner of the province, the community of Fort Nelson is the gateway to the Northern Rockies. With a population of approximately 3,000, many people in this Peace River municipality have not been directly exposed to the demographic and cultural diversity experienced daily at larger urban centres.
This is why Heather Sawin, a proud Fort Nelson resident and mother of three, says that when her youngest came out no formal support was available for them and their family in the community.
The need for a safe space for LGBTQ2+ youth and allies to meet, share experiences and have fun at home, in Fort Nelson, was evident.
“Ray, my youngest, went from a happy, go-lucky kid at the age of eleven to suddenly being withdrawn and reserved,” recalls Heather. “It took him talking to his older sister, who at the time was training to be a therapist, to come out and identify himself as Transgender.”
The closest support for the family was in Prince George, approximately 800 kilometres or an 8-hour drive away. This was not convenient or sustainable for Heather and Ray.
“While we did not have an immediate support in Fort Nelson, we had the larger provincial and national community as a resource for our family,” says Heather. “Groups like those run by Gender Outlines in Prince George and Gender Creative Kids in Montreal helped guide us at first. Then, thanks to their connection with Trans Care BC northern representative, Jean Baptiste, they were encouraged to apply for the Trans Care BC peer and community project support initiative.”
The seed of an idea for Rainbow Connections was born. Ray and Heather wanted to create a safe space for their peers in Fort Nelson and the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality.
“Rainbow Connections started as two parallel groups running separately but at the same time,” explains Heather. “One was a peer-led support group for parents of gender-diverse kids to share experiences and better support the growth and exploration of their LGBTQ2+ youth. The second was a facilitated safe space for gender-diverse youth and allies to meet, share experiences and have fun.”
Rainbow Connections groups meet in two different sides of a building. While both groups had a slow start, soon after word got out through the LGBTQ2+ community, youth and their parents started to come out.
“I think I’m a good parent, but when your kid hits adolescence they don’t want to talk to you that much and additional support is welcome,” adds Heather.
Jeff, a social worker from Northern Health who supported the project, joined Rainbow Connections and the kids were immediately drawn to him.
Altogether, Rainbow Connections has seen seven youth, three of whom join meetings regularly. The group travelled to Fort St. John for their Pride Walk on June 1 this year. “The support from Trans Care BC has allowed us to fund this and transportation for our youth members,” says Heather. “We have no public transport in Fort Nelson and some of our youth travel long distances to connect with their peers in this safe space.”
In addition to transportation funds, Trans Care BC resources also allowed Rainbow Connections to support the local Arts Council in bringing author and speaker Ivan Coyote to the community.
“Ivan Coyote came to speak at the local high school,” says Heather. “The kids opened up to them, and the youth were able to build on their ideas and energy in preparation for another engagement next year.”
As for the future of Rainbow Connections, Heather is most excited about continuing to grow the community in northern B.C.
“When Ray and I started, we thought we were alone in the woods,” says Heather. “We have now held our first allies meeting, forged partnerships with the local Arts Council, library, Literacy Society and more groups. This reflects how our community is getting involved and is becoming more accepting and embracing of our gender diverse youth as they become more exposed to our diversity.”
And when referring to her relationship with Ray and how their community has impacted her, Heather says, “He has awakened me.”
“People have been approaching me and telling me about Rainbow Connections without realizing I’m one of its co-founders,” says Heather. “Most importantly, Ray, as an ambassador for our community group, lights up when people show an interest in him and his story. Recently, at a Pride event in Prince George, as we walked around I said to my oldest daughter, ‘this is the first place where I haven’t been able to pick Ray out of a crowd.’ This community is a beautiful connection to have.”
Rainbow Connections usually meets the first Friday of each month.
Trans Care BC works alongside peers and community members to improve equitable access to information, resources, and supports for peer-led and gender-affirming support services across British Columbia.
Our program defines "peer" as trans, gender diverse, and Two-Spirit community members including children, youth, and adults, as well as their parents/caregivers, families, and loved ones. Peer support refers to the emotional and practical support and connection between people who share a common experience. Peer support provides an enriching opportunity to engage in knowledge exchange, resource sharing, social connection, mentorship, and personal growth.
We recognize that community partners, such as non-profit organizations and support service agencies, play an important collaborative role in supporting the development and sustainability of community peer supports.
For more information on how Trans Care BC helps connect British Columbians to gender-affirming and wellness supports as close to home as possible, please visit transcarebc.ca/care-support.