1969 was a historical year for gay rights in Canada and the United States. In the U.S., the Stonewall riots helped kick off the gay liberation movement. Meanwhile, in Canada, homosexuality was decriminalized. These were landmark moments in a fight for equality that continues until this day. This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of those events, we’re looking back at BMO’s history of support in the LGBTQ2+ community – both inside and outside the bank.
BMO has been a long-time leader in supporting the LGBTQ2+ community, with our support increasing in the 1980s and 90s. “The AIDS epidemic changed everything,” says Gavin Clark, Investment Advisor, BMO. “And BMO was way ahead of anybody in getting engaged and supporting charities and the community to help with the fight.”
During the early days of the AIDS crisis, BMO was the first bank to support Casey House and Fife House, which provided medical and palliative care and housing for people with HIV/AIDS. From there, we went on to support the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research and the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), which provided services for those with HIV/AIDS and their families.
“In many ways, our support was a bold move on BMO’s part. We were perceived as a change-maker, and other corporations followed our example,” says Nada Ristich, Head of Community Giving, BMO. “It was just very important to us to be involved. Employees were affected by it, clients were affected by it, and there was no support out there for them. Our early, aggressive support really speaks to the values of the bank.”
Toronto was one of the key cities in the world for organizing and working on the AIDS crisis. During this period, ACT wanted to find a new way to raise money, so along with MAC Cosmetics, they founded Fashion Cares, a legendary AIDS fundraising gala featuring spectacular fashion shows and celebrity performances. Over its 25-year run, the event raised more than $22 million to help raise awareness for HIV/AIDS. “It was a day of fantasy. Totally over the top,” says Gavin.
BMO was the first corporate sponsor to join Fashion Cares. “They were able to leverage our support to bring on other corporate donors,” says Nada. “And what it did was create awareness for the cause. It also provided credibility for BMO within that community. But most importantly, it was something we believed in.”
“It was an extravaganza. And it was fun, but that’s not why we got involved,” says Nada. “It was also about breaking down the stigma and creating knowledge about HIV/AIDS. That was a hugely important back then, and it still is.” She adds that BMO participated in all aspects of the event: “It was important to have a seat at the table, and BMO had a vital role. We got to determine how the event would evolve, what the messaging would be, and how to create awareness in the greater community.”
There were many challenges facing the LGBTQ2+ community at that time, including the fight for gay marriage, and for accessing partner benefits. Public sentiment started to shift – in part, due to the awareness created by events and campaigns like Fashion Cares. These acted as real catalysts for change.
Things changed within BMO, too. Employees enjoyed volunteering at Fashion Cares, with community members and allies alike signing on to help out. “Even though we weren’t necessarily the biggest bank, we looked like the biggest sponsor because we had so many volunteers and had a huge presence there,” says Gavin. This also created more awareness across our employee base.
“When I came to the bank, I was already on the sponsorship committee of Fashion Cares,” says Gavin. “I had pitched all the banks to get involved, but BMO was the only one that jumped at the opportunity. Our community was being decimated. It was major that BMO supported us.”
BMO’s commitment to the community showed up in other ways, too. In 2001, BMO opened a branch in Toronto’s gay village. We also extended support to the 519 Community Centre, the Pride and Remembrance Run, and a number of other initiatives across the country.
Gavin had previously worked at other companies, and had never felt as accepted there. “At BMO, they totally encouraged me to be who I really am. And that came from the very top. Our leadership was always supportive. And they understood that we could separate ourselves from our competitors by being inclusive. We have always known that if we seriously focus on D&I, it will separate us from our competitors. We aren’t pandering. It’s authentic.” Gavin adds that many of his clients wanted to work with him because of the Church Street Branch, which he helped open. BMO’s visibility in the community brought in business in other ways, too, as charities that we’d supported began coming to us for banking services.
BMO always had a broadly inclusive focus, which helped set us apart. “For a lot of companies, back then, support for the community was focused on gay men. But at BMO, we were inclusive of all kinds of identities. So we were ahead of the pack when D&I programming caught up with us,” says Gavin. At our Church Street branch, for instance, we hired one of Canada’s first Trans frontline bank employees, who continues to work at BMO to this day.
The world has shifted and evolved a lot since those days. And while we continue to adjust our community and D&I strategies to focus on current issues, some things never change. “We were being bold 25 years ago,” says Nada. “And we’re still bold now.”