Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders’ decision barring uniformed officers from attending an alternative Pride event geared towards first responders this weekend is “disappointing,” organizers say.

Saunders announced on Monday afternoon that officers planning to attend the First Responders Unity Festival on Sunday must do so “on their own time and without their uniform.”

The First Responders Unity Festival is designed to include LGBTQ police, firefighters, paramedics, TTC workers, military personnel and correctional services following an explosive year between Toronto Pride and these groups.

“I think that’s a disappointing decision,” First Responders Unity Festival organizer Bryn Hendricks told CP24.

Uniformed officers barred from Toronto Pride in January

Pride Toronto voted to remove armed, uniformed officers and police floats from marching in future parades during its annual general meeting in January, following a request made by Black Lives Matter Toronto over the organization’s controversial relationship with police.

The advocacy group responsible for the decision brought the 2016 Pride parade to a brief halt until top Pride executives agreed to a list of demands, including banning uniformed officers.

Saunders confirmed this move saying that uniformed officers would not participate in this year’s parade as Pride Toronto seeks to sort through the issue of police inclusion among its membership.

Pride Toronto’s new executive director, Olivia Nuamah, has characterized the move as a step back for the organization to listen to all voices and create an event that more fully reflects the needs of all members of the community.

She has said that officers are free to take part in the parade as long as they do so without weapons, uniforms or police vehicles.

First responders event not associated with Toronto Pride: Organizer

To counter this decision over police participation, Hendricks spearheaded a movement which scheduled a private festival celebrating its own LGBTQ community on the same day as Canada’s largest Pride parade, at a different location.

“We are not associated with Pride and we are not affiliated with them, nor are we even within the same confines or the same area as Pride Toronto,” Hendricks said.

Uniformed officers marching in New York Pride parade

Last month, Saunders referred to an invitation by the Gay Officers Action League, welcoming Toronto police to attend the New York Pride march on June 25 – the same day as Toronto’s Pride parade – as “a fantastic thing,” adding that he will support any member of his force who wants to participate.

“One of the good things about the police services is that we are a brotherhood and sisterhood of law enforcement and for NYPD to invite us I think is a fantastic thing,” Saunders told reporters in May.

Since then, Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack said the union is “delighted” by the invitation from New York and plans to attend the parade.

McCormack confirmed with CP24 on Monday that around 100 Toronto police officers will be attending the parade south of the border.

But for Toronto police officers to be allowed to march in New York Pride in uniform opposed to in their own city at the First Responders Unity Festival is “unrealistic,” Hendricks said.

“There may be an opportunity to revisit that given that we have officers that are going out to another country to participate in uniform in a Pride parade there,” he explained. “

‘The Chief has the ultimate authority’

McCormack, however is not shocked by Saunders’ decision given the controversy associated with police participation.

“The Chief has the ultimate authority,” he told CP24. “I’m not surprised the Chief said no to officers partaking in a private event in uniform.”

He said earlier that he wouldn’t be attending the First Responders Unity Festival because he already agreed to partake in New York Pride.

“The Toronto Police Association will be marching in uniform at New York City Pride where we are being welcomed in the spirit of full inclusion,” McCormack said. “We have received an enormous outpouring of support from our fellow first responders and we wish our colleagues well as they celebrate Pride.”

'The police chief may want to rethink that'

In the meantime, Hendricks is trying to stay optimistic and hopes Saunders will change his mind.

“It definitely was the point to create that space for them to be there in uniform and to be inclusive,” he said. “I think the police chief may want to rethink that.”

He is expecting thousands to turn out at the First Responders event, despite this setback.

Earlier, Mayor John Tory touted his support for it after marching in the Pride parade.

“I support our police and other first responders unequivocally,” Tory said previously. “I think you know that I also support Pride unequivocally and I do not believe the two and inconsistent with each other.”

While Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horvath have not committed, PC leader Patrick Brown will kick off the festival with opening remarks.

“I thought it was unfortunate that Toronto Pride was willing to have an event that celebrates inclusion by excluding a group and for those police officers who want to celebrate,” Brown said.

Hendricks emailed Saunders this afternoon, in which he asked “how far a Toronto police officer has to go in order to wear their uniform given they can do so in another country?”

“Would Windsor be acceptable? Peterborough? Ajax?” Hendricks wrote.