OTTAWA — Canada’s national gay lobby group dropped a ball they told gay men and lesbians they had picked up.
Egale Canada failed to comment on Bill C-2, federal legislation that other queer groups say will threaten freedom of speech, artistic expression and the rights of teens to choose their own sexuality. And they did so after telling Canada’s gay men and lesbians that they were sending a position paper opposing Bill C-2 to the federal justice committee examining the legislation.
Egale’s board of directors decided Apr 14 to publicly criticize sections of Bill C-2, the first legislation Paul Martin introduced after last year’s election. In an interview with Capital Xtra, the chair of Egale’s legal committee said the organization considered three options in response to the child-porn section of Bill C-2: to continue the direction taken by the board the previous December and not submit a comment; to endorse the “nicely put together” brief opposing the bill from the Canadian Conference Of The Arts representing 250,000 artists; or to write its own brief about the bill’s impact on an accused’s defence of creating work with artistic merit.
“We decided to go with the third option, the bravest option,” said Hilary Cook, who is also one of two Ontario reps on the Egale board.
But Capital Xtra has learned that Egale never submitted the document to parliament’s justice committee.
“That’s right,” says president Laurie Arron. “It was too late.”
After Egale first failed to take a stand on C-2 in December, some suggested the organization was focussing too many resources on fighting for same-sex marriage legislation and dropping the ball on other issues.
The suggestion prompted Egale executive director Gilles Marchildon to write a letter to the editor. “Let it be understood that Egale did not make a choice between either pushing for equal marriage legislation or fighting Bill C-2,” wrote Marchildon. “Our advocacy plate is quite full with a range of issues.”
Bill C-2 has been strongly criticized by two other leading queer groups: The Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO), and the Toronto-based Sex Laws Committee. Both submitted extensively argued position papers to the justice committee. Both feared that the bill would make criminals of gay men and lesbian artists and authors dealing with topics of coming out and sexual abuse. Both groups worried that gay teens would have their right to choose their own sexual expression curtailed.
Both issues were also raised by Cook in her interview with Capital Xtra. In the last issue of Capital Xtra, NDP MP Joe Comartin, who sits on the justice committee which examined Bill C-2, said he had wished the gay community had come before the committee to outline its opposition.
When informed of the position papers opposing the bill, Comartin expressed surprise and said he had not received copies.
That’s not accurate, according to clerks working for the committee.
The CLGRO brief was submitted to all MPs on the committee at 9:49am, and the Sex Laws Committee brief at 1:53pm, says Adele Levergnaux, assistant to the committee.
“The [committee] members get so many” he may have forgotten it, says Levergnaux, when asked why Comartin says he did not receive the paper. “Or maybe he misplaced it.”
Comartin did not return repeated calls from Capital Xtra about Levergnaux’s comments.
But in a May interview, Comartin said the NDP sees some of the same shortcomings in the bill as do gay and civil libertarian groups. But he’s been consistently out-voted in committee by shifting coalitions – sometimes the Liberals and Conservatives working together, other times the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois collaborating.
The Conservatives attempted to amend the bill to outlaw any sex involving teens under the age of 16, says Comartin. They failed. But the surviving language “could catch relationships that are not exploitive,” says Comartin, a career trial lawyer. “Similarly, if you have a fundamentalist judge offended by a youth under 18 taking part in sexual acts, it’s broad enough to catch that.”
Comartin says he fought to preserve some semblance of artistic merit defence in committee but “I was pretty well isolated” as some Liberals joined with Conservatives.
The reality in the world is that close family members do most child abuse, says Comartin. But Bill C-2 focusses instead on the work of artists, writers and journalists. Comartin says he was impressed by the reasoning of the BC Civil Liberties Association that works of the imagination should not be illegal. Only works that rely on actual child victims should be outlawed.
“If we do not have an actual victim, there shouldn’t be any bars,” he says.
The final wording will result in artists and writers facing trials. Comartin believes they will ultimately win, and the courts will re-write the law to be more open to artistic freedom. But artists should not have to face expensive trials that damage their reputations, he says. And given society’s homophobia, he suspects that police and Crown prosecutors will be even more likely to charge gay writers and artists.
“I hope I’m wrong, but it’s opened it up,” he says.
The committee also changed the original text of Bill C-2 to create minimum jail sentences for some sex crimes. Possession of child porn will now result in a minimum 30 days in jail. Sexual touching will result in a minimum of 90 days actual jail time. A judge will have no ability to consider mitigating circumstances, says Comartin.
Egale’s Arron agrees the gay and lesbian community had no realistic chance of derailing C-2.
He contrasts the bill to that of Bill C-38, the same-sex marriage legislation also introduced by the governing Liberals. Gay lobbyists concentrated on convincing wavering MPs in all parties to support the government legislation.
“It’s one thing to work with a government on a bill they support; it’s another thing to stop a bill. I’m not aware of Egale stopping a bill the government wants passed.”
The main value of opposing Bill C-2 lay in educating MPs and the public, he suggests.
The committee heard from 52 witnesses commenting on the proposed legislation, and received 30 written briefs. Organizations as diverse as the CBC, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Federation Of Canadian Naturists and groups representing writers and artists objected to parts of the bill. Supporters of the bill included police groups, Entrepreneurs Against Peadophiles, the Evangelical Fellowship Of Canada, Stop Polygamy In Canada, REAL Women Of Canada.
Bill C-2 passed third reading Jun 9 and is now at the Senate. It will likely become law this fall.