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Bob Rae returns to the fray

Liberal byelection candidate confronts the past

FRIEND OF THE COMMUNITY? Former NDP premier Bob Rae revisits the controversial failure of Bill 167 and reveals all. Credit: Xtra files

Bob Rae is confronting his divisive history with the queer community in an upcoming byelection.

Rae is the Liberal candidate in the Mon, Mar 17 federal byelection in Toronto Centre, the riding that includes the city’s queer village. Rae is running against Conservative Don Meredith, NDPer El-Farouk Khaki and Green Party candidate Chris Tindal.

As the NDP premier of Ontario in the ’90s Rae instituted the Trillium Drug Program and the Ontario AIDS Bureau, measures that probably saved the lives of numerous gay men. But in 1994 he allowed the defeat of Bill 167 — which would have granted spousal rights to same-sex couples — by having a free vote on the measure. Twelve members of his own government voted against it, ensuring its defeat.

In an interview with Xtra, Rae defended his decision and laid out his stance on issues currently affecting queers.

“I think it’s fair to say our government was probably the most progressive government on issues affecting the gay and lesbian community of any government in the country,” he says. “The first thing we did was expand coverage for all gay and lesbian couples in the public service. We brought in the Trillium drug plan that affected a lot of gay people who were receiving drugs for HIV and AIDS. I think the catastrophic drug plan in Ontario became a model for other plans across the country.”

Rae says he understands why queers are angry about Bill 167.

“One has to look back 15 years and recognize that public opinion in the province and in all three parties was very, very different than it was to become,” he says. “We had people who were very opposed to it in the NDP caucus at the time. Obviously the Liberal party, there were a lot of people who were not prepared to vote for it. There was nobody in the Conservative party who was prepared to vote for it.”

Rae says, now, he would vote in favour of NDP MP Bill Siksay’s private member’s bill to add trans people to Canada’s hate crimes legislation. He also says he would support restoring funding to the Court Challenges Program.

“It’s a very good example of how the Conservatives just don’t understand the way in which the Charter is such a critical vehicle for people in a number of communities to which majorities from time to time can be insensitive,” he says.

Rae leans toward raising the age of consent to 16 from 14 but says consent for anal sex should be lowered from 18 at the same time.

“I think whatever the age of consent is it should be the same for straights and gays and everybody,” he says. “I think there’s an argument for having a common age of consent, there’s an argument for having the age of consent at 16, but there’s no argument for having different ages of consent. That’s not something that makes any sense.”

Rae also opposes recent healthcare decisions made by the Harper government, including the recent cut of $1 million in funding to local AIDS organizations in Ontario.

“Everything they do from the boycotting of the AIDS conference to their attitudes on a whole range of issues, I think this is clearly something where [Harper] is not prepared to move the government into the 21st century,” he says. “It’s pretty clear to me they just don’t understand the impact these decisions are having on the community.”

Rae also opposes Health Canada’s decision to ban gay men from donating organs.

“I’m a bone marrow donor myself so this is something I feel quite strongly about,” he says. “The great public health challenge is bringing donors forward. I’m opposed to discriminating against people as a group. It’s a mistake. I think it’s a terrible policy and I don’t think it’s been thought through very carefully.”

Rae says a Liberal government would make queer human rights an essential part of its foreign policy.

“We need to look at where we find people who are facing the most awful forms of discrimination, prejudice and repression in a great many countries and a great many societies around the world,” he says. “Our approach on these issues, our commitment to human rights, our commitment to equality, should speak very much to how we look at and understand how different governments and different societies operate.”

Rae also didn’t rule out replicating his naked appearance on The Rick Mercer Report for Xtra readers.

“It would depend on whether Xtra was as nice to me as Rick Mercer was,” he says. “Let’s just see what happens.”