For a complete biographical sketch see Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist by Jim Egan ed. Don McLeod, where this summary draws from. Additionally, Jim Egan: Canada's pioneer gay activist, writings of Jim Egan compiled and introduced by Robert Champagne
James Leo Egan was born in Toronto September 14, 1921 on St. George Street to Nellie (Josephine) Engle and James Egan, completing the family was Charles Egan, who was 14 months younger than James and also gay. Egan did not complete high school, instead worked on family farms around Peterborough. His army application was rejected in 1939 due to a corneal scar from a piece of glass he got in a car crash, and his choice to not have it removed by doctors which would have made him eligible. Instead he worked as a technician in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto. Other zoology and medicine assistant jobs followed. In 1943 Egan joined the Merchant Navy as a seaman, a stint that lasted until 1947.
Egan met John “Jack” Nesbit in the summer of 1948, around this time Egan came out to his mother (his father died when he was thirteen). She had no issue with his sexuality, treating Nesbit as another son. Egan moved into Nesbit’s apartment at 164 Cumberland Street within weeks of meeting. While living there Nesbit took a hairstyling course, and then managed his own business. Egan was offered a job from someone he had met at U of T to assist with a biological specimens business. The couple moved to Oak Ridges (Richmond Hill), into the house that came with this job.
Between 1949 and 1951 Egan wrote letters to Coronet, Ladies Home Journal, Esquire, Parents’ Magazine, Redbook, Time and others protesting their homophobic language. These letters were not published. Egan’s first published letter in the mainstream press argued that Kinsey was bringing sex into the modern age (The Globe and Mail, May 16, 1950). He was first published in the tabloids in Flash in May 1950, then in October 1950 another letter appeared in True News Times, and then in December 1950 Egan’s article “I am a Homosexual” was published in Sir! under his pseudonym, Leo Engle.
In November 1951 Egan reached out to the True News Times (TNT) suggesting an article series concerning homosexuality. “Aspects of Homosexuality” was published from November 19, 1951, for seven weeks. In 1952 after writing for TNT Egan took a hiatus, writing little.
In May 1951, Justice Weekly published several letters by J.L.E.. Egan then proposed a series similar to TNT, writing “Homosexual Concepts” between December 1953 and February 1954. Another untitled series of 15 columns followed until June 1954.
From 1954-1959 Egan was on hiatus from his activist work, suffering the effects of inhaling formaldehyde from specimen preservation. The couple sold their house in Oak Ridges and moved to a working 200 acre farm in Northwestern Ontario, near Chesley in 1954. To supplement earnings Egan started embalming cats for an American company, while Nesbit managed a hair salon in Chesley. Egan’s mother lived with them on the farm.
By mid-1956 they were not making money with the farm and Jack was unhappy. They moved to Beamsville and rented a store that used to be a pet shop, which they reinvigorated. They also started a seed supply business, and continued their specimen and embalming business. They dubbed it “The Nature Shop” and were known as “The Nature Boys” by locals.
They moved back to Toronto in 1964 and rented 1052A Bloor Street West. Early in the year Nesbit and Egan’s relationship ended when Nesbit gave Egan an ultimatum, either Egan give up gay activism or their relationship. Nesbit did not like the level of notoriety associated with activism and had a different view of activism altogether. During this period Egan was often arguing on the phone with local newspaper editors, and people were calling looking for a crisis line. They could not resolve Nesbit’s ultimatum so Egan moved into a one room apartment near Spadina and College, starting another specimen business.
In the first half of 1964 Egan was unhappily separated, disenchanted with being an activist, the lack of community support and their passive attitude towards gay liberation. Nesbit was also unhappy, his sister was angry at him for ending the relationship after 15 years and wanted the couple to get back together.
In May 1964 Egan reconciled with Nesbit commiting to end his activism. Nesbit wanted to leave Toronto believing Egan would return to it if they did not. They decided on British Columbia. In June they drove across Canada with their three chihuahuas, settling in Duncan and establishing the Jamack Biological Supply Company. They specialized in marine specimens, and their business thrived. Egan became involved in the environmental movement, joining the Society for the Prevention of Environmental Collapse (SPEC), becoming vice-president of the Cowichan Valley branch.
They moved to Thetis Island on Telegraph Harbour in 1968, where they built a lab and continued their business. In 1972 due to health issues and the manual labour required for their work, they gave it up and retired to Chemainus British Columbia. Egan engaged in environmental work and Nesbit with his gardens.
In 1974 they moved to Meriville, and built a two-thousand square foot stackwall house out of driftwood. Nesbit volunteered on the phone lines at Crossroads Crisis Centre and later was a marriage counsellor. Egan was a freelance carpenter and continued his environmental activism. In 1980 Egan became a member of Save Our Straits Committee, a group blocking a local sewage plant from pumping untreated sewage into the Strait of Georgia. The BC Ministry of the Environment granted a permit for this plant, but the Committee eventually convinced the Ministry to treat the sewage and the permit was overturned. Egan’s environmental work made him a celebrity and in 1981 he was elected as regional director for Electoral Area B of the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona, making him the first gay man living in an openly gay relationship to be elected to public office in Canada. He was re-elected twice but decided not to stand for re-election in 1993 at age seventy-two.
In May 1985 the couple moved to Courtenay where they met members of the LGBTQ+ community. They had had no significant contact with the LGBTQ+ community from 1964-1985. Egan kept his promise to Nesbit, disengaging in gay activism for 25 years, with the exception of some letters in 1973 to the Daily Colonist (Victoria). By 1985 Nesbit’s attitude to gay liberation had changed, and they started the Comox Valley branch of the Island Gay Society, holding monthly drop-ins at their house for eleven years. Egan was also involved in the North Island AIDS Coalition and was president in 1994.
When Nesbit was denied spousal pension benefits in 1987, their path towards their Supreme Court challenge began. They used the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge the discrimination against pension benefits for same-sex couples under the Old Age Security Act. Their challenge was the first involving same-sex rights heard by the Supreme Court under the Charter with the goal to fight institutional discrimination and homophobia.
They wanted to force a high court to interpret section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation, giving homosexual couples the legal right to be recognized as “spouse” and therefore be protected from discrimination in all areas of federal legislation. Additionally, arguing that the definition of “spouse” in the Old Age Security Act was unconstitutional, and discriminatory towards gender and sexual orientation, contrary to section 15(1) of the Charter. The couple hired David Vickers of Vickers and Palmer who applied for their case to be sponsored by the Court Challenges Program which was funded by the federal government to support litigation costs in test cases based in equality rights under the Charter. They received funding and brought an action in the Trial Division of the Federal Court of Canada in December 1988.
The case was heard on May 28-29, 1991. On December 2, 1991 Justice Martin dismissed the action, ruling that even though “the Old Age Security Act did not define same-sex partners as spouses, it did not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Martin stated that same-sex couples “did not fall within the meaning of the word ‘spouse’ any more than heterosexual couples who live together and do not publicly represent themselves as man and wife, such as brother and sister, brother and brother, sister and sister, two relatives, two friends, or parent and child.” Martin concluded that Egan and Nesbit were not the sort of couple Parliament had in mind when the Act was passed in 1975, that “...the relationship is a different one than a spousal relationship and that the parties to such relationship cannot expect to share the benefits accorded to those in spousal relationship, not because of their sexual orientation, but because their relationship is not a spousal one.” (McLeod, 100-101).
Egan and Nesbit appealed this ruling in August 1992 with their new lawyer Joseph Arvay of Arvay, Finlay and Associates, who agreed to represent them pro bono when The Court Challenges Program was cancelled by the Mulroney government. They lost again in April 1993 when the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the judgement 2-1 that there had been no discrimination due to sexual orientation.
In 1992 they appealed to the Supreme Court with the re-instated Court Challenges Program, and were heard in November 1994. On May 25, 1995 the appeal was dismissed in a 5-4 decision. “Despite the court agreeing 5-4 that the current spousal definition was discriminatory, which was the first time the Supreme Court ruled that the failure of federal legislation to recognize same-sex relationships [was] discriminatory” (McLeod, 102). All nine justices also stated that “sexual orientation” must be classed in the Charter as discriminatory, to match existing grounds such as race, gender, and religion. However, the “Court also ruled 5-4 that the discrimination was justified under section 1 of the Charter. Four justices ruled that section 15 does not extend to same-sex relationships.” (102)
The aftermath of the ruling was captured in David Adkin’s documentary “Jim Loves Jack: The James Egan Story.” Nesbit suffered three stress-induced angina attacks. Despite the disappointment there was a positive outcome. EGALE noted the ruling meant that sexual orientation qualified as discrimination under the law, subjecting all Canadian statutes where same-sex relationships are classed as inferior to be subject to challenge.
In 1995 and 1996 their story was told by the media across the country. Jim was given a national human rights award by the Lambda Foundation for Excellence, and the couple were grand marshals at Toronto and Vancouver Pride in 1995. In September of 1997 for his community service Egan was awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship, the highest award given by Rotary International.
The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary in August 1998.
Egan gave interviews and attended conferences until near the end of his life. Egan died on March 9th, 2000 of lung cancer at age 78 in Courtenay and Nesbit three months later on June 23rd four days before his 73rd birthday.