3 min

Changing the climate

Libby Davies is an energetic fighter for the under-represented

HONEST DEBATE ON SEX LAWS: Lesbian politician Libby Davies wants to see Parliament debate sex laws, including those that censor books at the border and regulate prostitution and bathhouses. Credit: Xtra West files

“I guess I got into politics because I was ordered to run-by Harry Rankin.” Libby Davies is recalling her reluctant entry into politics as a 23-year-old.

She smiles fondly. “I remember I was sitting on his living room floor. COPE was getting more well-known and it was hard finding people to run,” she remembers. “He looked at me and said ‘you’re going to run.’

“I was terrified,” she admits, and that started a political career that’s led her to this current election for her third term serving as NDP MP in the riding of Vancouver East. Davies had been working in the Downtown Eastside after a year studying political science and arts education at UBC. That fateful afternoon at Harry Rankin’s house put her on city council for 11 years after the 1976 election.

Her focus hasn’t changed much since then. “I believe I’m fighting for the same basic rights now and I believe more passionately now than I did 30 years ago in the same things. I’m inspired by people who, with very few resources, keep going, and keep going, and change the social, political and cultural climate.”

Davies represents people who are under-represented or not represented at all: Native people, women, drug users, transsexuals, sex trade workers, gays and lesbians. Many are shut out of the political process, she points out.

The 51-year-old hopes to achieve more open access to government by the people, “where we have a political process that is more participatory-where decisions are not made by the powerful elite who shut people out.” She finds great satisfaction in “working with people on things that matter to them and then seeing the change happen. It’s not about political parties or winning elections, it’s about the broader movement of social change and justice. I feel enormously privileged to be an MP. I love what I do.”

When she needs to get away from it all, Davies escapes to her cabin on Gambier Island. She loves to hang out at coffee shops on The Drive (and drink tea). She has a sister in Saskatchewan and one in Vancouver. Her 25-year-old son Leif also lives in Vancouver. Davies divides her time between here and Ottawa where, Kim, her lesbian partner of five years, lives.

Davies became the first woman NDP House Leader just over a year ago, one of only two to hold that position in Canadian parliament and provincial assemblies. Only 20 percent of MPs are women, she notes. “That has a big impact on decisions that are made. It’s a good example of why gay men and lesbians should get into politics.”

Davies believes it’s important to be in places where laws and decisions are made, to have some control over those decisions. “The political process must reflect the community that we represent. If we don’t vote, there are others whose votes will dominate who is elected and what decisions are made.”

The censorship issues around Little Sister’s Bookstore are a great example of what the Liberal government does while claiming to support gay and lesbian rights, Davies charges. It makes her angry that the Liberals force the courts to rule on gay issues. “It’s appalling” that the government forces cases through the courts rather than making changes through government legislation. “God knows the amount of time and money that have been spent. Talk about David and Goliath.”

The biggest issue she’s ever taken on, and the one she’s most passionate about, is drug use on the Downtown Eastside. “The day I was sworn in as an MP I started lobbying Alan Rock that “this is a health issue not a criminal issue.” And now, she notes, “the federal government supports Vancouver’s efforts.” She feels it’s one of her biggest accomplishments. “I’m proud to be part of the process to bring about that change.

“I’m a strong advocate for drug reform,” she says. The drug issue has fundamentally changed in Vancouver and, closely associated with it, the sex trade. “I’m on a campaign to get the laws changed, with the current bawdyhouse laws included in the package.” Davies wants honest debate on laws around the sex trade, then updating current laws or abolishing them altogether.

Through a parliamentary committee set up to review the Criminal Code as it pertains to the sex trade, Davies hopes government will review a number of laws, including the bawdyhouse laws. She believes it’s time to look at the laws and have a debate-that a review of the status quo is long overdue.

Davies has never been married, “but I will defend to the death, people’s right and choice to do so.” She’s not concerned about the rightwing factions targeting politicians who favour same-sex marriage during this campaign. “I don’t care, they’re a small group, they’re noisy and well-financed, and they do not reflect the vast majority of Canadians.” People she’s talked to, even those who don’t agree with same-sex marriage, tell her they realize “that it’s none of their business.”