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January 11, 2021 | Alumni

U of T alumna Valerie Korinek is an award-winning expert in the queer history of Western Canada

By Negin Neghabat-Wolthoff

Valerie Korinek smiles while standing in front of a birch tree outdoors.


A history professor and vice-dean, faculty relations, in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan and an internationally recognized gender and cultural studies historian, Valerie Korinek (BA 1988 UTM, MA 1990, PhD 1996) was recently named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a distinction only bestowed upon those who are the best scholars, scientists, artists and humanists in their field.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Mississauga­­, Korinek majored in English with a specialization in History. She went on to earn both her Master of Arts and her PhD in Canadian cultural and gender history from the University of Toronto.

She is the author of Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and Peoples in Western Canada, 1930-1985, which has earned her multiple national awards - an exceptional achievement for a scholarly book. Through oral, archival, and cultural histories that describe the experiences of queer urban and rural people in the prairies, her book constructs a trailblazing history around gay and lesbian activism and community-building in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Congratulations on being named a Fellow of RSC! In your case, it’s just one more among many accomplishments, but were you pleased to hear about it?

Thank you. Yes, it was such a tremendous honour, and although I was aware that the nomination had been submitted, when they contacted me, it was an incredible moment, a real career highlight! It has made me reflect, as such moments do, on how I got to this moment. And, naturally, that reflection makes me grateful, and so appreciative, of all the teachers, professors, and mentors, colleagues, friends and family who have supported me over the years.

No one achieves such a recognition by themselves; it is the result of the encouragement, hard work, and support of many, many people. And my parents and sister, my partner, and kids, have been central to this journey – I couldn’t have done it without them.

Speaking of achievements, let’s talk about Prairie Fairies, your award-winning book about the history of gay and lesbian activism in Western Canada! What got you interested in studying this previously unknown piece of the region’s history?  

When I moved to Saskatchewan, a colleague suggested I meet a person in the library that I would find interesting. It took me nearly a year before I contacted Neil Richards. Neil told me he had donated a few items to the provincial and university archives, and, when I discovered the scale of what is now called The Neil Richards Collection in Gender and Sexual Diversity, and that almost no other scholars had previously utilized it, I thought this was a goldmine of material.

"The Neil Richards Collection in Gender and Sexual Diversity was a goldmine of material"

At the same time, I was discovering the queer community in Saskatchewan, and realized that it was very vibrant and larger than I had imagined. So, the academic and the personal came together and I started working on what I thought would be a quick, short book. It ended up taking 15 years to research, collect the oral interviews, and write – which, naturally, was compounded by having my two sons and serving as department head in the history department during that time, all while publishing other articles and two edited collections. So, it took a long time from conception to completion.

Prairie Fairies looks at the activism of queer men and women in the region by analyzing newsletters, magazines, and organizations they created. Could you share the one piece of information that you came across in your research that you found most fascinating?  

The Winnipeg Lesbian and Gay Community organized two oral history projects in the '90s that preserved an oral history of queer lives dating back to the 1930s. This was a real find. Gay men talking about cruising the hill, behind the provincial legislature, going to pubs in St. Boniface in drag, congregating under the light of the Golden Boy – Winnipeg’s famous gold, winged god that graces the top of the legislative building – those were great stories of a subcultural world few mainstream Winnipeggers knew existed prior to WW II. Additional interviews included more women and, so, the histories of lesbian house parties, sports, bars and hangouts are also told in those interviews – it is a rich, rich collection now housed at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collection.

In your book you also talk about the high levels of activism in the region. Could you tell us more?

Yes, that was the second surprise in my research: the level of activism. In the 70s and early 80s, there were three national gay activist conferences held annually in the prairies. Saskatchewan Gay Coalition, a provincial group, strove to support gays and lesbians throughout the province. They published a newsletter, and organizers made trips to small towns to host gatherings. All of that activity was very well known in the 70s and early 80s, but with the AIDS epidemic, activism shifted gears to focus on people living with AIDS.

"Prairie people were fully engaged in movements for gay and lesbian liberation, and later, social justice issues"

Bringing this back to light, making people today aware of what work actually happened, not only revises the notion that the prairies were apolitical, or uniformly homophobic, but that prairie people were fully engaged in movements for gay and lesbian liberation, and later, social justice issues.

What about your personal background? Where are you originally from, and how did you choose UTM to be the start of your path into higher education?

I grew up in the west end of Toronto, in Etobicoke. My parents were very keen on giving my sister and myself the excellent education they had missed out on. But my path to UTM didn’t start out on an auspicious note. I applied to phys-ed programs after high school, and accepted an offer from McMaster University, but, during my first week there, discovered that Phys Ed wasn’t for me. I told my parents I was dropping out, and they weren’t very pleased.

My mom reached out to my high school history teacher, who was also the wife of the U of T president at the time, to see if it was possible to transfer into U of T. That personal connection was invaluable because, otherwise, I might have lost a whole year. All but two colleges were full– Erindale, which is now UTM, and Scarborough. So, living in Etobicoke, the die was cast and I chose Erindale. I loved the classes; the campus was small and I made lots of friends, but I had access to downtown to attend sports events, go to the libraries, and enjoy main campus life. It was perfect, I wouldn’t have changed a thing – but it certainly wasn’t my original plan!

Your undergraduate degrees were in English and History; what inspired your decision to continue your studies in History after that? And what drove your decision to stay at U of T for your M.A. and Ph.D.?

I loved doing a fourth-year research paper for Laurel McDowell’s Canadian social history class. I’d worked at a local museum in the Niagara area for two years, and I wanted to go on to an MA to continue learning, researching and writing history. I initially enrolled at Queen’s but missed Toronto, my friends and family. So, I dropped out and returned to start an M.A. at U of T the following academic year.

"I’m twice a university drop-out and three times a graduate, which makes an important point. People bounce back from adverse situations"

I took some amazing classes from Paul Rutherford (MA 1966, PhD 1973)History of Popular Culture – and Sylvia Van KirkCanadian Women’s History – and wrote an MA paper for Sylvia. At that point, there weren’t any jobs for teachers, and I decided to continue with graduate school. I received several scholarships, including from U of T, and it seemed too good to be true to go to school and get paid.

I like to tell people that I’m twice a university drop-out and three times a graduate, which makes an important point. People bounce back from adverse situations, and you learn more from temporary setbacks than you might from a linear career!

At which point did you know that you wanted a career in academia, and what made you choose the University of Saskatchewan to begin your academic tenure?

When you enter a PhD program, the hope is to get an academic position. In 1996, there were three tenure-track positions in Canadian history – one in Massachusetts, one in Washington State, and one at the U of S, in Saskatoon. I applied for all three of them, and I was fortunate to get interviewed at Saskatchewan.

I thought I would go out west for two years and then move back to Ontario – and I’ve been there ever since, because it was and is a marvellous history department. And, I’ve been fortunate with a number of career opportunities in terms of research, teaching and administration, that I might not have had elsewhere. The U of S has been an excellent place to work, I’ve been grateful to have landed in such a supportive, collegial environment – not everyone is as fortunate.

How have your degrees and what you have learned at U of T helped you in your career?

My degrees from Toronto have been foundational. Everything that I based my teaching on, when I first began in 1996, was from U of T.

I tried to provide my students with the best experiences I had at U of T. But, naturally, Saskatchewan isn’t Toronto. I had to learn quickly how to adapt my perspective on Canadian history to teaching in the prairies. That was humbling, learning again how to think about history, how to make history responsive, first, to regional perspectives, and then to draw on my graduate work at U of T to become more knowledgeable about Indigenous histories, the settler-Indigenous relations of the region, and to working, teaching and living on Treaty Six territory and the traditional homeland of the Métis.

For a professor, there’s research and then there’s teaching. What motivates you as a teacher? 

I love teaching, and I have won a Provost’s award for teaching at Saskatchewan. What motivates me is creating new classes, thinking about how to make history more engaging, to attract students. Many other disciplines now attract students away from history and, so, we have to work harder to make people realize that history is dynamic and can answer big questions faced by society.

"History is dynamic and can answer big questions faced by society"

I had the privilege of creating a food history class at Saskatchewan, of creating sexualities history classes, and offering a history of popular culture class, which was influenced strongly by the amazing classes that Paul Rutherford taught on the St. George campus. Getting students to think critically, to become passionate about research, to think about the history behind contemporary social justice issues, that, for me, is the real joy about teaching.

At the graduate level, it is about mentoring the next generation. I’m incredibly proud of what graduate students of mine have accomplished, and the role I’ve played mentoring them for successful careers.

What are some current research projects you are working on?

I have a new SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant, entitled “Love + Litigation = Marriage: Canadian Same Sex Marriage and the International Context” which seeks to historicize the process of same-sex marriage in Canada, focusing on the thousands of international couples who came to Canada to get married after 2003 when Ontario and BC legalized marriage for same-sex couples.

"Marriage equality has attracted considerable attention internationally, but the Canadian story deserves wider recognition"

Now, the pandemic has taken a toll on this project, and I’m on a bit of a hiatus, waiting for archives to re-open and for my graduate students and myself to travel again to interview some of those couples. People came from all over the world, and returned with a “Canadian marriage” and a desire to get that marriage recognized in their home country. That quest was the tipping point for various different legal and activist strategies around the world.

I’m also fascinated by the way that marriage equality has transitioned from a controversial issue in Canada, to one that is embraced by the Liberal government as a symbol of Canadian achievement and respect for diversity rights. Few could have imagined this when early liberationist activists started to campaign for access to marriage in the 1970s. Marriage equality has attracted considerable attention internationally, but the Canadian story deserves wider recognition and analysis, and that is my next project. But, until the pandemic abates, my leadership position is keeping me plenty busy!