Despite rapidly changing attitudes toward homosexuality over the past few years — openly gay political and public figures, entertainers and characters in TV shows and movies, and a generally more accepting society — recent headlines have called attention to the fact that discrimination is still prevalent, particularly for those most vulnerable.
The Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC) is a not-for-profit community organization providing support and resources to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit communities (LGBTT) of Winnipeg, Manitoba and North Western Ontario. As the only resource centre of its kind in the region, the Centre has become both a champion of the community and a hub for information and support services.
Programming includes adult and youth counselling, a peer-support line, school outreach, an education program, and life-skills training, facilitated by a small but passionate staff and a strong volunteer base. The Centre devotes considerable time and energy to supporting LGBTT youth.
One of the major projects spearheaded by the Centre is Camp Aurora, a summer camping program that takes place each August where LGBTT youth can enjoy the simple experience of appreciating the great outdoors in a supportive environment. Older youth, themselves former camp participants, act as leaders and role models.
Chad Smith is executive director of Rainbow Resource Centre and acting Camp director. Smith believes that a safe place like Camp Aurora is important for young people in the community, as they are often the most in need of friendship and a positive environment.
“Canada is a leader in [human] rights for sex and gender minority individuals,” says Smith. “Policies and legal rights are in place, but that doesn’t always translate to society. A lot of the discrimination is in schools. Suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety — this stuff is still prevalent, especially among teens.
“Camp Aurora is a place where LGBTT youth can come and experience summer camp like any other youth, but they get to experience it fully as themselves, as a member of the LGBTT community. The Camp creates a safe place of summer fun, memories and impressions for youth that often don’t get to enjoy the summer camp experience that other youth get to.”
Jared Star, a youth coordinator with the Centre and the Camp, agrees that Aurora offers LGBTT youth an opportunity that many young people might take for granted.
“A lot of kids that attend Aurora don’t attend summer camp or bible camp, because they just don’t feel comfortable,” says Star. “To provide that life experience, and to do it in a way where they’re comfortable to be there and free to express their identity in the way they want to, is worth so much to these youth.”
Each summer since 2007, Aurora sets up at Camp Brereton, sponsored through Variety the Children’s Charity. The 4-day camp has room for 42 youth ages 14 to 18, and 10 peer-youth leaders; older youth who have gone to camp, received leadership training, and are there to give back as role-models for younger campers. Much like any other summer camp, Aurora aims to help youth make new friends, try and learn new things, and have fun.
Each camper pays a $25 registration fee, but actual costs (including admin staff, lifeguard fees, and food) are closer to $250 per person. Fundraising through the year makes the camp affordable.
The Winnipeg Foundation has previously supported Camp Aurora through Camp and Summer Programming Grants.
“We end up having to raise roughly $25,000 for the overall budget,” says Smith. “[We received] a  summer camp grant of $8,000 from the Foundation. That’s a third of the budget right there — it makes a huge difference.”
With youth attending from across Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, including Kenora, Dryden, Flin Flon, Thompson, and more, capacity is limited. Variety is expanding Brereton with a new lodge, allowing 10-20 new spots to meet demand. In the meantime, a Camp Aurora Facebook page allows campers to stay in touch throughout the year to support one another.
“The effect it has on these lives is huge,” says Star.
Camp Aurora 2013 runs August 27-30, at Camp Brereton in Whiteshell Provincial Park
Deadline for Peer Youth Leader Registration is: May 31
Deadline for Camper Registration is July 15