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Activists call for new queer rights group after Egale director joins Liberal Party

Helen Kennedy says she joined the Liberals to support a queer candidate

Helen Kennedy gives a speech at the Sept 15 Toronto Centre Liberal nomination meeting in support of queer candidate Todd Ross. Credit: Rob Salerno

A group of queer activists is calling for a takeover of Egale Canada or the establishment of a new national queer rights organization in the wake of news its executive director has officially joined the federal Liberal Party.

The activists say Helen Kennedy’s political affiliation is incompatible with her position as the face of an advocacy group that works with governments to advance queer issues.

Kennedy kicked off a small social-media firestorm Sept 15 when she showed up at the Toronto Centre Liberal Party nomination meeting and delivered a speech supporting the candidacy of queer activist Todd Ross. She told the crowd of Liberal supporters that Ross convinced her to join the Liberal Party, before joking, “I’m going to out myself as a former New Democrat.” She then said she is “proud to support Todd because of his ability to break down partisan walls to do the right thing and get things done.”

Derek Leebosh wrote on Egale’s Facebook wall, “I think its [sic] highly inappropriate for the Executive Director of Egale to today publicly declare herself to be a Liberal and to gratuitously dump on the NDP. Egale has a lot of key supporters who are NDPers and Liberals (and yes even a few Tories) and the head of the organization ought to be scrupulously non-partisan given these sensitivities.”

Glad Day Bookshop CEO Michael Erickson wrote on his own wall that Kennedy’s speech was a “sledgehammer . . . that broke the camel’s back,” leading him to propose a takeover of Egale.

Both Leebosh and Erickson are NDP members. Erickson was an NDP candidate in the 2011 federal election.

But Kennedy says her personal political affiliation is separate from her work at the officially non-partisan Egale. As a charitable organization, Egale is allowed under the law to lobby the government and advocate policies but must do so in a strictly non-partisan way.

When I joined Egale, I was with the NDP, and it was very evident then that I was with the NDP. I was hired by a Tory to head the organization,” Kennedy says. “When I spoke out on behalf of Todd, I did it as Helen Kennedy, not as Egale Canada. It’s never been an issue in my work.

“I’ve negotiated agreements with Tory governments in Newfoundland, NDP governments in Manitoba,” she says.

But does aligning herself with a political party call into question the stances that Egale takes on divisive issues being negotiated with the government? Many activists were critical, for example, of Kennedy’s stance on the Ontario Liberal government’s anti-bullying legislation in 2011. Kennedy had initially denied that Catholic schools banned gay-straight alliances and endorsed the Liberals’ initial proposal, which did not explicitly require Catholic schools to create GSAs.

Nick Mulé, chair of Queer Ontario, says that “it became quite obvious that there were people in Egale who were closely aligned with the Liberal Party.”

Kennedy doesn’t agree.

“I was still technically an NDP’er. I don’t really give the statement much of a credit. It’s not accurate. Were we left enough? You could argue we weren’t, but we were very much in the thick of the consultation, and I think we handled it well.”

She says she joined the Liberal Party only two months ago, primarily to support Ross.

“I joined to support an out queer Métis who has done an amazing amount of work for the community on a number of levels,” she says. “Being able to support the first out progressive lesbian premier would warrant my support.

“There’s no greater reason to leave the NDP. Linda McQuaig is a great candidate for Toronto Centre; I have a great amount of respect for her. I have great respect for a lot of the NDP, but for me it’s important to elect out progressive politicians at every level.”

Still others say that being publicly identified with a political party is problematic for a lobbying organization. Mulé says that the community may be right to question where Kennedy’s loyalties lie when she’s meant to be advocating for the community.

“It can raise serious questions about the ability of a group that’s committed to social change or activism or lobbying when their public leader is aligned with one particular party,” he says. “I think there are serious questions whether that’s going to affect the work of Egale going forward or not.”

And it’s not just about the Liberal Party, Mulé adds.

“If people are excusing this when she is aligned with the NDP, then I say it’s the fault of the community,” he says. “Even though [the NDP has] been supportive, they haven’t necessarily been consistent and aligned with the level of progression that we’re working on.”

But some of Erickson’s concerns go beyond Kennedy’s new political affiliation. He says the organization “has lost relevancy, effectiveness and integrity,” particularly on issues relating to the criminalization of HIV/AIDS, queer refugees, federal funding cuts to queer organizations, and the need for a national housing strategy as it relates to LGBT seniors.

“I've made excuses for Egale for years. I've defended the organization for years. But more than enough time has passed — if they haven't been able to revision and revitalize by now, then it's time for us to explore our options,” Erickson says.

Egale does a lot of work on issues related to bullying. It also has ongoing negotiations with Canadian Blood Services about the gay blood ban and is working on a campaign related to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Kennedy says she’d like the community to get more involved with the organization rather than tear it down.

“I would say, Take some time to really seriously look at what we’re doing and the inroads that we’re making,” she says. “I think we don’t do a good job of communicating broadly enough what we’re doing, and we need to improve. People in the community and across the country could help us enormously if they took an enthusiastic interest in the work that we’re doing.”