3 min

Filling ‘awfully big shoes’

Bill Siksay carries NDP banner in Robinson's riding

'THERE'S WORK STILL TO BE DONE': Bill Siksay sees three important gay issues in this election-same-sex marriage, censorship, and the bawdyhouse laws. Credit: Xtra West files

As far as politics in this country is concerned, “I’m not the slightest bit cynical,” says Bill Siksay. For 18 years now, Siksay has worked as NDP MP Svend Robinson’s constituency assistant-and now it’s his turn to run for election in the Burnaby riding.

“As an openly gay man I’ve seen so many changes since I started working for Svend,” says Siksay. “I’ve seen his incredible success record and that has made me hopeful about the job of politics.”

At the same time, Siksay is still adjusting to the unexpected-Robinson’s recent surprise resignation after stealing a ring. “I was incredibly surprised and shocked; there I was, managing Svend’s campaign and it was going well. Now things have changed and here I sit as the candidate. It’s hard to imagine the house without Svend’s voice. He took risks and raised issues that others were afraid to touch and attained an incredible success record.”

Siksay is being modest. He’s got a strong reputation of his own as a political strategist and as the staffer responsible for solving problems experienced by Robinson’s constituents in their interactions with government. Some would say Siksay’s a brilliant choice in the current circumstances-a man popular and already well-known by Burnaby voters.

Siksay says he’s running in the Burnaby-Douglas riding “to maintain as strong a continuity as possible working with the queer community,” and to continue providing services that people in his riding have become accustomed to. “I’m not prepared to lose ground on the issues in the queer community, in the areas of human rights, the environment and justice issues in general. I believe in the work Svend was doing and it’s important that work continue. At the same time, I’m not Svend.”

He takes a deep breath and is quiet for a few seconds. “They’re awfully big shoes to fill.”

“Voting for the NDP is so crucial to the queer community,” Siksay continues. “If there was no NDP standing up for and constantly moving the legislative agenda, if there was no NDP to publicly speak in defence of gay and lesbian rights, if there was no NDP pushing the envelope for so many years, then we wouldn’t be where we are today. I worked on those issues and I want to continue, as MP. There’s work still to be done.”

His hopes for this election? “I hope I get elected,” laughs the man who unsuccessfully carried his party’s banner in 1997 in a race against Hedy Fry for Vancouver Centre. This time round, his mood is hopeful. Robinson always won in a tight three-way race, and while some media commentators focus on the strength of the Conservatives in the riding, the left has a long history in Burnaby.

And yes, he and Robinson discussed the move before Siksay announced his intentions. “I do seek his advice,” he admits.

Siksay feels “the other two parties don’t believe our issues are important-or else they’re in direct opposition to them. The clock can always be turned back,” he warns, “and I won’t stand for the clock being turned back on the victories we’ve had. It’s important for everyone to get involved in politics to find some workable solutions to make society better. The more people involved, the better solutions we’ll come up with.”

“I still think there’s lots of things on the agenda for the queer community such as equality issues for transgendered people.” Siksay looks forward to working with trans people “to make sure issues of gender identity get onto the human rights and legislative agenda in Canada.”

He believes the outdated bawdyhouse laws need review and promises to act on what opportunities exist to see change any way he can. “I would not shy away from it.” As well, the censorship issues around Little Sister’s bookstore are “abhorrent” to him. “The arguments that are made can’t be taken seriously, but have to be taken seriously. I will continue to be supportive of Little Sister’s and others in the arts community. I have difficulty with censorship.

“Bring it on,” he says regarding the concern that pro-marriage candidates will be targeted by the rightwing during this election. “Issues around same-sex marriage, clearly, are not over yet. Still lots of work needs to be done.”

He feels one of his major achievements was his involvement in the United Church in the 1980s during the fight to ordain gay and lesbians as ministers. “We won that battle in ’88.” Siksay feels that was a major turning point for gay and lesbian rights in this country. “Coming out of that experience was very empowering, and in many ways makes me what I am today.” He was out very publicly in 1984 with Barbara Frum on a CBC debate on the ordination issue.

“I really hope there’s a solid caucus of progressive New Democrats who have influence either as the opposition or as a minority government, but I’m willing to fantasize that Jack Layton will lead us to form the next government,” Siksay grins. He is still officially constituency assistant while Robinson is on medical leave. “My job there doesn’t end until election day and then either I’ll be an MP or I’ll be unemployed and looking for work.”