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Canadian gay activists keep up the pressure on Russia

Protest planned during Toronto International Film Festival

Roy Mitchell, one of the #TOwithRussia organizers, speaks at the group's first rally. Credit: N Maxwell Lander
As part of an International Day of Solidarity for Global LGBT Equality on Sept 8, Toronto group #TOwithRussia is taking its protest out of the gay village and into Dundas Square for an Olympic-themed rally and march.
 
“Dundas Square is the centre of the city,” says Roy Mitchell, one of the organizers. “We started this movement with a rally in the Village. Now we are ready to get the message out to as many people as possible about the injustice not only in Russia, but around the world.”
 
#TOwithRussia previously organized a march on Aug 3 and a townhall meeting Aug 14. 
 
Mitchell says the Sept 8 rally is also significant because it will take place during the Toronto International Film Festival. “This is a time when the world is watching Toronto and the world comes to Toronto. While we enjoy the luxury of inviting queer artists to the city, places like Russia do not have the same opportunities.”
 
Since Russia passed controversial “anti-homosexual-propaganda” laws in June, the country has seen a rise in violence toward LGBT people. The new laws make it a crime to say anything pro-gay. Russian legislation also bans gay couples around the world from adopting Russian children and grants police officers the power to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being LGBT or "pro-gay.” 
 
Most recently, President Vladimir Putin banned protests in Sochi during the upcoming Olympic Games.
 
The International Olympic Committee has for the most part stayed silent, refusing to condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws. 
 
“It would be shameful if the Olympic officials let this opportunity pass by,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV Legal Network. “Organizations that have influence should use that influence to achieve positive change for human rights.
 
“The concern is not primarily and only about the safety of participants in the Games. This is a much broader concern for Russian LGBT people.”
 
Elliott says Russia is in breach of the Olympic charter and it should not be permitted to host the Games. “The IOC has the authority to withdraw the Games for breaching the charter . . . Will they actually encourage people to speak out, or will they be complicit with the Russian government in actually silencing people?”
 
Elliott has written a letter to the Canadian government, the IOC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the event's corporate sponsors calling on them to take concrete action against homophobia in Russia and the escalating violence against the country’s LGBT communities. The letter has been endorsed by more than 100 organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress, various human rights groups, the United Church of Canada, almost every national and provincial AIDS organization in Canada, feminist advocacy groups and numerous unions.
 
Elliott is urging the Canadian government to apply diplomatic pressure at the upcoming G20 summit in St Petersburg, Russia. “It would be surreal if such a meeting did not in fact address the elephant in the room, which is this horrible hatred being fuelled by Putin’s government,” he says. “It would be unthinkable if other countries do not raise these concerns at the G20.”
 
Earlier this month, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, denounced Russia's anti-gay laws.
 
Elliott has also requested a meeting with Baird, the COC, Olympic corporate sponsors and the CBC, which is the official Canadian broadcaster of the Games. “The Canadian Olympic Committee has so far done very little on this front,” he says.
 
Dimitri Soudas, the executive director of the COC, told Xtra last month that it would be inappropriate for the organization to take a stand on Russia’s anti-gay laws. Xtra could not reach Soudas for further comment.
 
Elliott’s letter also calls on the Canadian government to impose visa restrictions on Russian lawmakers to prevent them from travelling to Canada. He also says the IOC should host Pride Houses and calls on Olympic officials to speak out about the discrimination during the opening and closing ceremonies.
 
Activists have been targeting corporate sponsors of the Games, demanding they withdraw support if Russia does not repeal the laws.
 
“We need the corporate sponsors to use their influence in a meaningful way that would put pressure on the Russian government to stop discriminating and stop encouraging the tide of hatred that we’re seeing,” Elliott says, noting that economic and political pressure have the potential to make a real difference. “Talk is cheap, so let's see sponsors use the influence that money and sponsorship gives them."
 
A group of Toronto queer activists plans to picket the Loblaws at Church and Carlton on Sept 3 and ask the store's management to stop selling Coca-Cola, which is one of the major sponsors of the Games.
 
Organizer Zach NoCameco Ruiter says Loblaws has been a part of the city's gay village for more than a year, making a lot of money by marketing to local queer people. 
 
“Corporations will happily take pink dollars but pass the buck when it comes to a simple request,” he says. “Will you do whatever is in your power to prevent the state-sponsored persecution of gays in Russia? Shouldn't the answer just be yes?
 
“This is their chance to step up and show the queer community that Loblaws is a true ally," Ruiter writes on the Facebook invite. 
 
Loblaws management could not be reached for comment.
 
Protesters dumped out bottles of Coke during an Aug 29 protest in New York City's Times Square that was organized by Queer Nation and called on the soft drink giant to cancel its sponsorship of the Olympics. 
 
Coca-Cola responded with a statement, saying, “As an Olympic sponsor since 1928, we believe the Olympic Games are a force for good that unite people through a common interest in sports, and we have seen firsthand the positive impact and long-lasting legacy they leave on every community that has been a host.”
 
The company also touted its workplace anti-discrimination policy and boasted that it has scored 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) corporate equality index every year since it was launched in 2006.
 
The next day, the HRC responded by releasing an open letter to Olympic sponsors — Coca-Cola, McDonald's, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Panasonic, Samsung Mobile, The Dow Chemical Company, Visa, OMEGA Watches and Atos — vowing that their brands will forever be synonymous with an anti-gay Olympics. 
 
The letter demands, among other things, that sponsors “put marketing and creative advertising resources to use by helping to build awareness and demonstrate support for LGBT equality in Russia and globally.”