Ray Rempel has always had a passion for equality, beginning with his time as a teacher in Kansas in the 1960s – he has never seen any reason to treat people differently based on their identity.
“My first experience with the gay community wasn’t even a community. It was a couple of kids in high school who were gay,” Rempel told The Lake Report.
Over the years, he made friends and acquaintances within the community and “never batted an eye.”
“I just can’t comprehend the silliness. That people tend to throw up barriers any time things are deemed to be a little different from the norm,” he said.
Rempel has also always had a passion for gardening, finding time to make it a regular hobby over the last 20 years.
Amid some political tensions in town, including the June vandalism of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s newly installed rainbow crosswalk, Rempel decided to combine two of his passions.
“I would like to think that it isn’t (a response to the crosswalk vandalism), but it is,” he said of his project.
On his property, at the corner of Elden and Penner streets in Virgil, Rempel worked with his grandson Mitchel Durksen to plant a Pride garden in support of the two-spirit and LGBTQIA+ community.
The process was rather simple, Rempel said, and along with the help of Regal Florist and Garden Centre, he was easily able to find flowers for each colour in the Pride flag.
“I thought I’d have difficulty getting purple flowers, but I hadn’t even thought of pansies,” he said.
Rempel’s Pride garden isn’t his first act of advocacy, having done activism in support of people with brain injuries after his son Jeremy was in an accident resulting in a brain injury.
His work led to the establishment of the Ontario Brain Injury Association.
As someone who has worked with marginalized groups in the past, such as those with visible disabilities at the brain injury association, Rempel shared his shock that those in similar positions still have issues with the gay community.
“I don’t understand it,” he said.
One of Rempel’s students from back in the ’60s still stays in touch with him through Facebook to this day.
John Lischeid now lives in Vermont with his husband but still looks back fondly on his time being taught by Rempel.
“He was very inspirational, one of those young, dynamic teachers who was just out of high school,” said Lischeid.
For the group of kids in school who weren’t drawn to the “traditional” sports and activities, Rempel create a safe space for growth as a drama coach and leader of the debate team, Lischeid said.
Even now, back living in Niagara and long out of teaching, Rempel is working to make the places he occupies more welcoming.
“I just want us to move toward a more inclusive society,” he said.