Dianna Boileau honored with provincial plaque at La Verendrye Hospital

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a new provincial plaque to commemorate both Dianna Boileau, the first Canadian to receive gender-affirming surgery in 1970, and Doctor Harold Challis, a local physician at La Verendrye Hospital from 1950 to 1970.

The unveiling presentation was hosted by Borderland Pride and the Ontario Heritage Trust to a standing room only crowd at the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre on March 31, which is International Trans Day of Visibility .

Joanne Ogden, Board Chair at Riverside Health Care, acknowledged the impact of Dianna’s journey and said the hospital is dedicated to creating safe and inclusive environments.

“We recognize the immense impact that Dr. Harold Challis had in Dianna’s journey, along with the leadership he showed as a physician and general surgeon at La Verendrye General Hospital. As leaders in healthcare, we know that safe and inclusive environments and building a community of inclusion is important to better serving our communities. At Riverside we strive to create these environments that values diversity and welcome and respects all people’s contributions,” she said.

At the unveiling ceremony, Douglas Judson, a director at Borderland Pride, noted he first read about Boileau in a feature in the Toronto Star and found that her struggle with representation in a small northern town resonated deeply with many other LGBTQ2+ people from the local Pride community.

It was standing room only at an unveiling ceremony to commemorate former Fort Frances resident Dianna Boileau, Dr Harold Challis and Transgender Rights. Boileau was a pioneer of transgender rights in Canada, as one of the first to receive gender affirming surgery. Dr. Challis was her physician, who provided gender affirming care, well before it was commonplace. From left to right: Mayor Andrew Hallikas (Fort Frances), Samson Busch, Douglas Judson (Borderland Pride), Eileen Costello (Board member, Ontario Heritage Trust), Catherine Kiewning (City Councillor, Dryden), Stephen Challis (youngest son of Dr. Harold Challis) and Brad Fyfe. – Patricia Njovu photo

Behold Dianna is a limited series podcast produced by Borderland Pride for the 2021 Trans Day of Visibility, telling the story of Boileau’s upbringing in Fort Frances to becoming one of the first Canadians to receive gender-confirming surgery.

Born in the 1930s in Manitoba, Boileau grew up in Fort Frances where she lived until her teenage years. Struggling to fit in among her peers, she began to cultivate her identity as a woman in secret and confided her feelings to Dr. Challis, later going on to work in his office.

Dr. Challis was a general surgeon who moved to Fort Frances from England, bringing with him a progressive understanding of gender identity and gender expression. This allowed him to provide gender affirming care to Boileau and counsel to her family, years before her medical transition.

Her memoir, Behold, I Am Woman, Boileau wrote that she was named Clifford by her adoptive parents and received gender-affirming surgeries in 1969 and April 1970, at a time when few surgeries were done around the world.

Dr. Challis helped facilitate conversations with Boileau and her family as she socially transitioned to live publicly as a woman.

“She did all of that in a time and a place when there were likely no words known for her for what she was experiencing or feeling,” said Judson.

Boileau went on to work as a model in Calgary and Edmonton. Her autobiography recounted that she was unable to complete the application to enter the Calgary Stampede Pageant due to requirements to supply a birth certificate. After encountering many risks of exposure as a biological male, Boileau continued her employment as a legal stenographer.

She went on a media tour following the release of her autobiography and was later featured in various credited newscasts, including CBC who deemed the interview clip to be too controversial to air.

Boileau is believed to have passed away in 2014, as reported by the Toronto Star, but not before overcoming challenges, systemic barriers, prejudice and struggles that many trans people continue to face today.

Stephen Challis, the youngest son of Dr. Challis, said that he is very proud that his father happened to play a supportive role in Boileau’s story. He said that his father respected and was good friends with many doctors in Fort Frances at the time.

Challis said he and his siblings are still collecting documents on their father’s work. He recalled his father as “a person who burned the candle at both ends,” deeply involved in public affairs and public education while remaining a wonderful father to his family.

“We are here primarily to acknowledge the importance of Dianna Boileau and her pioneering role in the transgender experience and rights in Canada. The fact that my father happened to play a supportive role in that story is something we as a family are very proud of. And it’s a historical event, we’re very gratified to be acknowledged. And we’re particularly grateful to the work of Borderland Pride in expanding people’s understanding of this historical event,” said Challis.

Dr. Challis passed away in 1970, the same year that Boileau became one of the first Canadians to receive gender-affirming surgery at the Clark Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto.

Judson noted that Boileau’s story is significant not just because she was one of the first to face the many challenges that trans people continue to face today, but also because the timeline of her story also traces the history of the trans movement in Ontario.

“And it’s our hope that what we’re unveiling in Fort Frances and installing in front of our hospital affirms a positive message to queer and trans youth and young people in our community but also to the healthcare workers and the families and other people that frequent that place that will see that that will read about it going forward, because this is a new journey for somebody different every single day,” Judson said.

Eileen Costello, a board member from the Ontario Heritage Trust, said the Trust aims to expanding their narrative of their collective history.

“The public profile that Diana generated in the years that followed was obviously not always positive. But it must have in her way, served to form a sense of a woman model for the people who followed after her. And it certainly created awareness of trans identities for the first time in so many parts of Canada. And I think in many ways, she probably became a role model to people, the very kind of role model that she was lacking when she began her transition,” Costello said.

“And the unveiling of that the plaque today I think speaks to the trust’s work, and the trust’s commitment to the work to expand the narrative of our collective history to be more inclusive, in that in that work, and to share untold stories.”