Newsmakers – Travel

Pride in the Queen City

Richard Burnett

“Sacre bleu! Toronto rocks!” That pretty much sums up how I feel about Canada’s Queen City. As a lifelong Sin City Montrealer, I long felt it was my civic duty to trash Toronto the Good at every turn. But I no longer do.

In fact, a weekend getaway in Toronto is always a good bet, with fine restaurants and fab shopping, museums, top accommodations, vibrant LGBTQ nightlife and – my favourites – plenty of opera and big-league sports teams year-round. 

On this trip I returned to Toronto with my mother Diamond Lil: We were invited by our friend Louis-Michel to attend the lavish production of Puccini’s masterpiece Tosca, performed by the Canadian Opera Company (or COC – love that acronym), in his BMO box seats at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.


For the uninitiated, a night out at the opera in Toronto is delightful fun: opera lovers here love to dress up, and the Four Seasons Centre is hands-down the finest opera house in the land, on par with the great opera houses of Europe. Not to mention there isn’t a bad seat in the entire house, even the cheap seats. Not a one.

The orchestra was conducted by Maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson, and Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Floria Tosca were superb.

At an Opéra de Montréal rehearsal some years ago, the internationally-acclaimed Wilson – who grew up in Winnipeg and married Peter Gelb, the GM of New York’s Metropolitan Opera – told me, “We’re all artists who have opinions and it can be very difficult to convince others. This happens all the time. But that’s what opera is all about. Some singers have different capacities, for instance, in terms of breath control, that can affect tempi. So there’s a lot of compromise involved, which is the best way to describe my approach when something is wrong. But I will put my foot down if after several rehearsals they haven’t changed it.”

No drama here.

With Tosca, the COC closed their 2016-2017 season on a high note. Their 2017-2018 season looks to be another banner year, presenting new productions of Arabella by Richard Strauss (October 5 to 28), Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (October 11 to November 4), Guiseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto (January 20 to February 23, 2018), Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (February 7 to 24, 2018) and The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Igor Stravinsky (April 13 to May 19, 2018).

Looking ahead to their 2018-2019 season, Montreal native Rufus Wainwright is busy writing his new opera Hadrian, about the gay Roman emperor and his lover Antinous, an opera commissioned by the COC.

“What I love about my project is that it is very much rooted in the tradition of grand opera,” Rufus recently told me, “big sweeping romantic statements and larger-than-life characters who ruled the world. It’s my Antony and Cleopatra moment – Hadrian and Antinous and the Roman Empire.”


While in Toronto, Diamond Lil and I also attended the opening night “Gayla gala” of my old pal Maggie Cassella’s annual We’re Funny That Way queer performance festival, relaunched this year as an LGBTQ charity foundation.

“I was fortunate to start a company with Katie Ford (Ford Cassella Productions) that is focusing on making web hubs for underserved communities worldwide,” says Maggie. “Our motto is “Do Good. Do Good Business.” And because we’re both part of the community we thought we’d start with a queer hub. But it was instantly obvious to us when we launched a Facebook page and went over 10k likes very quickly that what we were doing was necessary in a way I think we both thought we had surpassed. Even here in North America. It “got better”, until it didn’t. So yeah, it’s about representation, and celebration, and ALWAYS providing a space for queer voices and especially the diversity of the queer voices in our community.”

Money raised at WFTW 2017 will benefit the first-ever LGBTQ drop-in centre in Scarborough, called Toby’s Place. “We have given to programmes in small towns in Alberta, BC, a summer camp in Halifax, literally all over,” says Maggie.

The WFTW 2017 gala and festival featured some terrific performers, such as comic actor Gavin Crawford (who got his start at the fest) and legendary comedian Martha Chaves.


“I love Toronto,” says Chaves. “I know that Montrealers don't like to hear that from a former Montrealer, but I just adore Toronto. It's a thriving city where we see people from every race, every colour, every religious hat, and we all hate each other in perfect harmony. And WFTW was amazing and very well organized. I love to perform for LGBTQ audiences, especially in a cosmopolitan city.”

Another festival favourite this year was Maggie’s BFF, queer icon Lea DeLaria.

“Lea and I have worked together continuously since we met in the late 80s,” says Maggie. “Her success with Orange Is the New Black is amazing, but we have continued as writing partners. We also write with (comedian) Kate Rigg now, who is brilliant. So we’ve always worked together. Being onstage with Lea is ridiculous and adding Kate to the mix this year just made it more so.  It felt like the dyke version of the Rat Pack.”

On another night Diamond Lil and I attended the third annual Salah Bachir Show, a dressy big-ticket benefit for St. Joseph’s Health Centre that was held at The Ritz-Carlton. We sat at the table of good friend Nada Ristich, Director of Corporate Donations at BMO Financial Group, which has fully and innovatively supported LGBTQ fundraisers during her tenure.


A week earlier, on April 30 in San Francisco, “Gala Salah” (as Salah is called by many) was named International Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (each year Bachir also presents his all-star 519 Gala benefitting Toronto’s LGBTQ community centre).

On this night at the Ritz, Bachir’s guest entertainers included Tony Award nominee Louise Pitre (of Mamma Mia! fame), comic actors Mary Walsh and Gavin Crawford, folk music icon Murray McLaughlan and Canada's First Lady of Jazz, Gospel and Blues, the great Jackie Richardson. The headliner was Grammy-winning disco diva Thelma Houston.

The first time I saw Ms. Houston was in Montreal back in 2003 when she co-headlined a star-studded disco revue at the Bell Centre with KC and the Sunshine Band, Village People, Martha Wash, Anita Ward, The Pointer Sisters and The Trampps.


Later that night at Montreal’s Funkytown disco, I snuck into the cordoned-off VIP section and Hi-Fived Ms. Houston before a big, beefy security guard literally lifted me up and carried me out while somebody else handed Ms. Houston a mic. Then Thelma stood up on her chair and sang her signature song Don’t Leave Me This Way, the global 1977 Number One smash hit that won her a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. The place went absolutely nuts. 

The last time I spoke with Thelma – who continues to perform at AIDS benefits and Pride celebrations worldwide – was at another Montreal nightclub a couple years ago. “Why do the gays love you so much?” I asked Ms. Houston.

“Well, because they think I’m fabulous!” she replied, smiling. Then Ms. Houston added, “The 1970s was a time when the gay community was becoming more political and organized, and my song was very popular in the clubs. Because of that it remains very popular with the gay community, who have remained very loyal to me. Once they embrace you – unless you betray them – they will support you forever. They have been my most loyal audience.”


Speaking of Pride, the annual Pride Toronto festival has become the largest Pride celebration in North America. Responding to Black Lives matters very reasonable demands, Pride Toronto this year has banned armed police officers and police vehicles from taking part in the parade – which, if you remember, began 37 years ago as a protest march following the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids.

Let us also not forget that Stonewall was a riot.

On May 7, Pride Toronto issued a clarifying statement regarding police participation in this summer’s parade:

“LGBTQ+ police officers and their allies are not banned from the parade,” Pride Toronto stated. “We welcome and encourage their participation to add to Pride this year as members of our community. LGBTQ+ police officers and their allies can march in the parade with community groups, with the City of Toronto, or even create their own group. We are simply requesting that their participation not include the following elements: uniform, weapons, and vehicles.” 

The statement concludes, “The Toronto Police Service has been involved and supportive to us throughout our festival planning. They will provide all the necessary services to ensure that the festival (and) parade are secure and successful.”

Pride Toronto presents its second annual Pride Month throughout the month June, culminating with their Pride Parade on June 25. For Pride Toronto news and programming announcements, visit



For many years I’ve happily travelled with environmentally-friendly Via Rail which links 450 communities across Canada with its 12,500-kilometre route network and transports over four million passengers annually. VIA Rail is also a partner of LGBTQ Pride festivals across Canada. The VIA Rail Panorama Lounge at Toronto’s Union Station features a complimentary snack bar and business centre. Rail travel to Toronto is not only relaxing but a terrific green option. VIA Rail also offers free Wi-Fi. To book a fare, visit



The Intercontinental Toronto Yorkville boutique hotel is centrally located (220 Bloor Street West) and boasts affordable luxury, superb personalized customer service, a Penthouse lap pool and fitness centre, and their SkyLounge, named best patio in the city and which will host LGBTQ-themed events during Pride month. Located in the university and arts district of Yorkville, the hotel is just steps from trendy restaurants, boutiques and art galleries, as well as the University of Toronto and major museums, such as the Royal Ontario Museum across the street (do NOT miss the eye-opening exhibition Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story at the ROM where visitors come face to face with the enormous 80-foot skeleton of Blue, one of nine rare blue whales that became trapped in ice and died off the coast of Newfoundland in 2014). For Intercontinental Toronto Yorkville reservations, visit or call 1-800-291-9434.



The historic and trendy Distillery District east of downtown Toronto is home to some 100 shops, boutiques and restaurants, notably the multiple award-winning Pure Spirits Oyster House & Grill (17 Tank Lane). Fresh fish and oysters are flown in daily from around the continent and abroad, and the staff are very attentive. We enjoyed a terrific Friday 6 pm dinner. By 7 pm the place was packed with young Torontonians enjoying cool drinks, wine and oysters at their tables and at the long bar. Table reservations recommended. Visit or call 416-361-5859.



While the Church-Wellesley Village remains the focal point of LGBTQ nightlife, queer-owned and queer-friendly establishments can be found throughout the Queen City, notably in the west end, where the affectionately named “Queer West Village” – centered around Queen Street West between Trinity Bellwoods Park and Roncesvalles Avenue – has become an alternative to the Church Street scene. For all you need to know about Toronto, visit

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at