'It scares me,' A town near Sault Ste. Marie becomes the target of a hate crime

A rainbow flag was found on the ground at Central Algoma Secondary School in Desbarats, near Sault Ste. Marie earlier this month. It was burned using what OPP suspect was gasoline or lighter fluid.

‘He lowered the flag, pulled it off the rope, threw it to the ground and set it on fire.’

A Pride flag burned lies on desk
A burned rainbow flag was found on the grounds of Central Algoma Secondary School in Desbarats, about 60 kilometres east of Sault Ste. Marie. (East Algoma Ontario Provincial Police)

A burned rainbow flag was found on the grounds of a school in Desbarats, about 60 kilometres east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

The East Algoma Ontario Provincial Police say the incident happened at Central Algoma Secondary School on May 9 at approximately 2 a.m. 

Police have retrieved video showing a male in a dark hoodie on school property. The individual could be seen lowering the school's Pride flag, ripping it off the pole, setting it on fire and immediately running away. 

OPP Const. Bev Gauthier says they may have used something like gasoline or lighter fluid to set the flag on fire.

Gauthier is the town's community safety officer. She said, "I go to all these schools, I've been on the job since 2014… That's the first time I've ever heard of a hate crime in that school."

A beach with Pride flags stuck in the sand
Rainbow Camp is a camp for young people who are in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, allied youth, their siblings and children in queer families. (Welcome Friend Association)

Two weeks later, two typed notes were brought to school staff. Police did not reveal the contents but confirmed the notes included hateful messaging toward the 2SLGBTQ+ community. They received those letters on May 21.

Harry Stewart, the chair of the 2SLGBTQ+ organization Welcome Friend Association, says the country is moving backwards. Northern communities have now become the target of hate crimes.

"When we first started Rainbow Camp, you saw a lot of the kids very afraid and really concerned about their safety," said Stewart, discussing the camp he runs nearby to support 2SLGBTQ+ youth.

"We've been running Rainbow Camp for almost 14 years and slowly it was getting better. There was still lots of fear, but you could tell they were feeling more secure and had each other to reach out to. But over the last couple of years, whether it's coming from the U.S. or whether it's just our climate here, there's a lot more pressure and heat."

The incident comes almost a year after the Canadian government released a statement warning of the rise in hate crimes. 

"Around the globe, people experience violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression," reads the statement released May 30, 2023.

"We're trying to make a difference in kids' lives. And yet there's so much other stuff going on out there that it scares me," Stewart said, urging for more education and awareness of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Gauthier says the principal of Central Algoma Secondary School has already replaced the Pride flag.

"Hats off to the school and the teachers over there, they're continuing on with their life and they will not tolerate it as well as OPP will not tolerate the hate."

Police continue their investigation. They say they'll provide further updates as they become available.


Rajpreet Sahota is a CBC reporter based in Sudbury. She covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. News tips can be sent to