Jim Egan (activist)

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Jim Egan
Born 1921
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died March 9, 2000(2000-03-09) (aged 78–79)
Courtenay, British Columbia, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Known for

Jim Egan (1921 - March 9, 2000) was a Canadian LGBT rights activist, best known for his role in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case Egan v. Canada.[1]


Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario,[2] Egan realized he was gay at a young age.[3] He met John Norris "Jack" Nesbit, his lifelong partner, in 1948.[4]

Early activism[edit]

Beginning in 1949, Egan was a regular writer of letters to publications, criticizing inaccurate portrayals of lesbian and gay people, and to politicians, advocating for fairer treatment of lesbians and gays under the law.[5] His letters appeared in daily and weekly newspapers, and in magazines such as Saturday Night and Time.[5]

He later went on to contribute journalism pieces about homosexuality to publications such as True News Times and Justice Weekly.[2]

In 1964, he was prominently featured in Sydney Katz's "The Homosexual Next Door", a Maclean's article which was the most positive portrayal of homosexuality ever to appear in a mainstream Canadian publication up to that time;[6] even though Egan appeared in the article under a pseudonym, Nesbit — a more private person who was uncomfortable with Egan's public visibility — demanded that Egan give up his activism if he wanted to continue their relationship.[7]

Move to British Columbia[edit]

Although Egan initially refused and the couple broke up, Egan soon decided that he wanted to reunite with Nesbit and dropped his activist pursuits.[7] Egan and Nesbit moved to Vancouver Island in 1964, starting their own business.[1] Egan was also active in local politics, serving as a representative for Electoral Area B (Comox North) on the Comox-Strathcona Regional District board from 1981 to 1993.[2]

Supreme Court case[edit]

Having reached retirement age, Egan began collecting Canada Pension Plan benefits in 1986,[4] and applied for spousal benefits for Nesbit the following year.[4] The couple would actually have been better off financially if they collected separate individual pensions, but chose the spousal benefits route as they felt their situation would make a strong test case for the legal rights of same-sex couples.[4] After the spousal benefits were denied, they took the case to court;[4] following losses at the Federal Court in 1991 and the Federal Court of Appeal in 1993,[4] the case reached the Supreme Court in 1994.[4] The case was argued before the Supreme Court on November 1 of that year.

The Supreme Court ruled on May 25, 1995.[8] The court ruled against Egan on the issue of spousal benefits, finding that the restriction of such benefits to heterosexual couples was a justified infringement because the core purpose of such benefits was to provide financial support to women who had spent their lives raising children rather than in paid employment[8] — however, they ruled unanimously to include sexual orientation as a prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[8] The latter ruling was seen as a significant victory for LGBT rights in Canada despite the loss on the benefits issue itself,[8] setting the stage for later successes in the courts; it came to be cited as a key precedent in important later court decisions such as M. v. H.,[9] Vriend v. Alberta,[10] Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada,[11] and Halpern v. Canada.[12]

Later years[edit]

Egan and Nesbit were subsequently named as grand marshals of Toronto's 1995 Pride Parade.[13] The following year, they were the subjects of David Adkin's documentary film Jim Loves Jack.[14]

Egan published the memoir Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist in 1998.[7] In the same year, a portrait of Egan by artist Andrew McPhail was added to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives' National Portrait Collection in honor of his role as a significant builder of LGBT history in Canada.[15]

Egan died on March 9, 2000 at his home in Courtenay, British Columbia.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Gay-rights activist took pension fight to Supreme Court". The Globe and Mail, March 11, 2000.
  2. ^ a b c Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon, Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-1134583133.
  3. ^ "Gay community has lost a hero ; James Egan started fighting for equal rights in the 1940s". Toronto Star, March 16, 2000.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Elderly B.C. couple say they are ideal test case on gay spousal rights". Montreal Gazette, December 29, 1994.
  5. ^ a b Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. ISBN 0802036082.
  6. ^ Hugh Brewster, "Outcasts". The Walrus, June 2014.
  7. ^ a b c "A happy life in ignorant times". National Post, January 16, 1999.
  8. ^ a b c d "Gay couple lose 8-year fight for pension benefits". Vancouver Sun, May 26, 1995.
  9. ^ M. v. H., at para. 64
  10. ^ Vriend v. Alberta, infra note 24 at para. 90.
  11. ^ Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada (Minister of Justice), [2000] 2 S.C.R. 1120 at para. 118
  12. ^ Halpern v. Canada, [2003] O.J. No. 2268 para. 74
  13. ^ "1981 bathhouse raids were a pivotal point ; Angry reaction helped unify city's gay community". Toronto Star, June 18, 2001.
  14. ^ "Canada's pioneer gay activist subject of new TV documentary". Victoria Times-Colonist, January 6, 1996.
  15. ^ Inductee: James (Jim) Egan 1921 - 2000. Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.