A year into her term as executive director of Egale Canada, Helen Kennedy is proud of what the organization has accomplished.
She points to the Safe Schools and Stop Murder Music campaigns as major accomplishments. But she’s also aware those campaigns have sparked accusations that Egale is advocating censorship and ignoring local groups.
“The Stop Murder Music campaign has been a very significant part of our programming for the past year,” she says. “It has also come with some controversy. Freedom of speech is very important to this community and some people feel that there is an element of censorship. I don’t hold that view. I think it violates hate crime laws.”
But Gilles Marchildon, the executive director of Egale from 2003 to 2006, says Egale has crossed the line, especially in asking Canada Post to censor material.
“The danger, of course, is that once you advocate in favour of curbing freedom of expression, where does it stop and who’s going to decide where the line gets drawn?” he asks in an email. “Let us recall history. When governments have played the role of censor they’ve usually done it at the expense of the LGBT community and of its artistic and/or sexual freedom.
“Regarding offensive lyrics by certain artists, I’m glad Egale has raised the issue because it never hurts to underline the existence of homophobia. But I’m personally not comfortable with inviting government agencies to play a censorship role.”
During Marchildon’s time, Egale opposed an Alberta human rights complaint filed by Darren Lund against the writer of a homophobic letter to a Red Deer newspaper.
“We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Marchildon wrote at the time, arguing for open debate.
“When we made a decision about the Lund case it was very unpopular in some quarters,” Marchildon says in an interview. “I tried very hard to explain it. I wrote columns, I wrote in my blog.”
Marchildon says Egale has failed to explain its position in inviting Canada Post to censor. In fact, he says, Egale is failing to explain much of anything to its members.
“Egale is supposed to be a membership organization,” he says. “I am concerned. I haven’t seen a newsletter in quite some time. There should be opportunities for the members to be involved.”
Kennedy admits that Egale needs to reach out to its members more.
“We have to do better in keeping our membership up to speed,” she says. “It’s a volunteer-driven organization. We moved offices, we changed our whole administrative setup. That consumed a tremendous amount of time. But as we start to do some really aggressive fundraising I think the community and our members will see an increased presence in their inboxes.”
Critics and even Egale members also say the organization has to do a better job of working with queer groups on a local level.
Kris Wells, a graduate student at the University of Alberta and the driving force behind the queer youth-oriented Camp Fyrefly, says Egale needs to bring its education efforts to a grassroots level.
“Groups within the schools haven’t been supported,” says Wells, also a member of Egale’s Education Committee. “We don’t even have a national database of gay-straight alliances or LGBTQ youth organizations that exist in our country.”
Kennedy agrees, saying that she is working on obtaining corporate funding to put such a database together.
But that lack of local coordination is a theme for other critics as well.
“Egale tends not to have an awareness of other groups working on issues,” says Tom Warner of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario. “They seem generally to be doing it without working with local or provincial groups.”
Warner is critical of Egale’s efforts during the Ontario election, especially over a leaders’ debate on queer issues.
“They did that without really checking with us,” he says. “Those kinds of approaches create issues and concerns.”
That debate is also a source of complaint for Susan Gapka of the Trans Health Lobby Group and a former Egale board member. Gapka is upset that the debate, which she saw as one of the few chances to address trans issues, was cancelled because the leaders declined.
“Helen said if the leaders weren’t going to show up there was no point in having it,” she says. “For me this was an opportunity missed.”
Gapka says she thinks some elements within Egale worry that supporting trans issues will cost the organization support.
“Helen is tremendous on trans issues,” she says, “but she has a board to answer to. I think there’s some people who believe it would cut into their core base.”
Kennedy admits that Egale’s efforts on trans issues need to be greater.
“We have to renew our emphasis on trans issues,” she says. “That will be a significant focus for the next six to eight months.”
But trans issues aren’t the only ones Egale is accused of downplaying for fears of controversy.
“I do think Egale is not giving priority to issues of sexuality,” says Warner. “They tend to shy away from taking them up.”
Peter Bochove, founder of the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century, says Egale needs to hammer away at the federal Tories on those issues.
“Egale needs to be tackling that in a much more direct fashion,” he says. “The worst possible thing that can happen is for people to be silent.”
Kennedy says Egale does attempt to talk to the Harper government, although with little success.
“In terms of effecting any real positive change we haven’t had any,” she says.
But she says Egale is determined to raise all of these issues in the next federal election.
“We’ve been gearing up since winter,” she says. “When enough people from a community get passionate about an issue we can move mountains.”