Seniors’ advocate, humanitarian, human rights activist: Chris Morrissey is a powerful force in Vancouver’s queer community and last month was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work helping queer immigrants and refugees reunite with their partners and find sanctuary from oppression, discrimination and possible death.
“Chris is just an incredibly courageous, compassionate and tenacious person in our community who has spent a lifetime helping others,” says Vancouver Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies. “She’s worked to get appropriate housing for the LGBTQ community, she’s a queer woman herself who has spent a lifetime with her partner, Bridget, she’s an early pioneer for the fight for rights for the queer community. She is the full package.”
Davies presented Morrissey with the Queen’s medal during a ceremony held Nov 18. The medal will be given to 60,000 Canadians this year for their outstanding contributions to their communities and the country.
“What Chris has done is reach beyond the boundaries; she has fought for LGBTQ immigrants who are chastised and scrutinized,” Davies tells Xtra. “I think she has done exceptional work worthy of special recognition by the community.”
"I always heard from others that 'it doesn't really matter to me.' But that's part of the problem," Chris Morrissey says. "It does matter to me."
(Leah Bromley photo)
Morrissey, 69, co-founded the Rainbow Refugee Committee
in 2000 and has spent decades providing support and advocacy to people seeking refuge from persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.
In 1992 Morrissey co-founded the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Task Force (LEGIT, legit.ca) which successfully lobbied the federal government to reform immigration sponsorship rules to allow Canadian gays and lesbians to sponsor their same-sex partners. Until then, same-sex partners were not recognized as family.
For Morrissey, starting LEGIT was a labour of love. She spent years embroiled in a legal fight to sponsor her partner, Bridget, 78, an Irish-born American citizen, to come to Canada.
Morrissey remains part of a collective of queer couples and individuals working together for fairer Canadian immigration laws. She has travelled to Ottawa numerous times to testify before the Senate and the standing committee on citizenship and immigration against unfair refugee reform and the Harper government’s Bill C-31, set to become law Dec 15, which could hurt queer refugees trying to stay in Canada.
For Davies, who distributed medals to 30 local individuals, recognizing the queer community among the recipients was “profoundly important.”
“I thought it was important that the 30 medals reflect the diversity in the community and Canadian society. And the LGBTQ community is a vital and vibrant part of our community,” he says.
Davies received 200 nominations after requesting input from various community leaders and the 45,000 households in his riding. He says he hand-picked the candidates he felt best exemplified “outstanding Canadians” and the “unsung hero.”
“We recognized people who wouldn’t normally be recognized,” he says. “We targeted the ‘unsung hero’ and chose people for doing the work from the best place in their hearts.”
“She’s a model for us all,” Davies says of Morrissey. “Not just for the queer community, but all Canadians.”
In addition to her refugee and immigration advocacy, Morrissey has been actively involved in promoting the visibility of queer seniors throughout Vancouver. Until her retirement in 2009, she was the program coordinator for the LGTB Generations Project. She is also a member of Quirk-e, a collective of older queers who share their life experiences through art, media, theatre and poetry. She also holds a seat on the City of Vancouver seniors advisory committee.
“I wanted to be sure that there would be representation of the older queer community,” Morrissey says, asked why she joined the advisory committee. “I wanted to make sure that we [queer seniors] were a part of the discussion. It was important to me to bring visibility as an older queer senior to the dialogue and have a presence.
“I always heard from others that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me.' But that’s part of the problem,” she says. “It does matter to me.”
“There’s always been a tendency to erase the different. But to me it’s always been important to be clear that there are differences and that it’s okay,” she says.
Over the years Morrissey has also taken on the role of an educator, teaching students the importance of delivering specialized healthcare to seniors.
“My focus was on providing education for students and frontline workers in the healthcare system that provided services to the elderly,’ she explains.
Most recently, Morrissey has been instrumental in starting a refugee sponsorship campaign called Vancouver Circle of Hope, which works with the Rainbow Refugee Committee to encourage local community groups and individuals to join together and group-sponsor queer refugee claimants.
Morrissey says she feels humbled receiving the medal.
“Clearly it’s an honour and recognition. But I also feel humbled in the sense that I’m the person whose name is out there, but the work we do is the work we do together,” she says, with a nod to her partner, Bridget, and fellow immigration activists.
Asked what changes she’d still like to see to immigration laws, Morrissey doesn’t hesitate.
“I hope that internationally there’s a lot more acceptance and understanding that people’s sexual orientations or identities are different than the majority of people. If we had that around the world, people wouldn’t be fleeing their countries,” she says.
“In our community it would be helpful if people were more open to a broader reality than our own little piece of the world in Vancouver, where we have rights and privileges,” she adds.
“I want to be around long enough and remain active enough so I can be engaged politically and educate people on the need to vote in the next federal election because I really believe that Canada’s values are being taken apart by this government,” she continues.
“It’s something that we have to do: we have to all speak out,” she says.