The race to find a new leader of the federal Liberal Party has been slowly simmering over the summer in anticipation of delegate selection at the end of this month.
But with such a large field of candidates and media coverage that has tended to focus on foreign policy and environment issues, it can be difficult to know where the candidates stand on social and queer issues.
Since gay marriage played a central part of Liberals’ failed election strategy earlier this year, whoever is elected as the new Liberal leader in December will have to walk a delicate balance of progressive social policy without playing into the Conservatives’ divisive electoral strategy.
“A lot will depend what happens in the House of Commons this fall, and whether or not the government decides to back the issue of same-sex marriage,” interim leader Bill Graham told Xtra West at the Liberal National Caucus last month. The way the Liberal Party would address queer issues in an election “would depend obviously on who our new leader is.”
Xtra West asked each of the Liberal leadership candidates about issues of importance to the queer community.
Dr Hedy Fry
MP Vancouver-Centre, 1992-present
Former Minister of State (Multiculturalism)
Xtra West: How would the Liberals under your leadership respond to an attempt by the Conservative government to reopen the issue of gay marriage?
Hedy Fry: Well, we would obviously support the concept of civil marriage…. We know that there are some in the NDP and the Bloc who would support it. We can’t stop the Conservatives if they want to do it, but we can marshal our forces to stop them. Strategically, what we could do is bring forward a motion to reinforce that legislation.
XW: Where do you stand on the Conservatives’ plan to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16 and rename it the “age of protection”?
HF: I voted against that in the past whenever that came up as a private member’s bill. I can tell you whether you like or not, there are young people engaging in consensual sex. We have to be very careful about making criminals out of young people.
XW: Where do you stand on equalizing the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual acts (currently, the legal age of consent for anal sex is 18)?
HF: We should equalise. I mean, good grief, that’s discriminatory to say the least.
XW: Will you act on the recommendations of the Parliamentary sub-committee on solicitation laws to legalize prostitution?
HF: I am the parliamentary committee. I used to chair it, until I became a parliamentary secretary. I was the one who pushed to have the committee reinstated and it was just reinstated… I do think that we should decriminalize prostitution. By decriminalizing solicitation, that could in fact help the women and men who are at risk, and those are the ones who are on the streets… How we do that will have to involve working with the municipal level of government.
XW: Do you support amending the Canada Human Rights Act and the hate propaganda sections of the Criminal Code to explicitly protect trans-identified people?
HF: Absolutely. This is another group of people who still are not treated equally under the law. I ran on this originally back in 1992, and I put all my efforts behind moving this agenda forward, with some colleagues who were against it. It’s very spotty across the country, their access to health care… Any physician will tell you, this is a medical diagnosis, and that there is uneven access to medical care. There is a huge stigma for transgender persons, and it’s time we work to end it in 21st century Canada.
XW: How do you reconcile the Canadian Forces’ security support role in Afghanistan with that country’s ongoing violations of the human rights of women and queer people?
HF: We went in there to protect people, and to ensure the rebuilding of the country and democratic institutions. I voted against the blank cheque that Mr Harper signed to extend their role. We sent them in with a clear mandate and that expired in February 2007. We should not be an aggressor or an occupying force. We have given our word and our reputation… We can’t just walk out, but after that, we clearly should be reassessing what we’re doing there. Canadians need to make that decision. Parliament needs to make that decision… If we are going to stay there and be party to what is going on, then we have to weigh that as well.
XW: The Liberal Party is known to have deep divisions over key queer issues, including gay marriage, the sex trade, and hate crimes. How do you propose to unify the party and prevent anti-gay voices from holding back progressive social policy?
HF: We’ve done that haven’t we? We’ve always had people who’ve been against this from the beginning. We’ve always had strong leaders who pushed this agenda. In a democracy, you cannot stifle people’s voices for what they’re objecting. What you need is a strong leader to stand for strong ideals and rally the other parties as well. If you think about it, it’s not just the Liberals, look at the Conservatives. Even the conservatives were divided, including Belinda Stronach and James Moore who voted for same-sex marriage. Even the NDP has had divisions. Bob Rae’s Ontario government failed to pass legislation [on same-sex relationship rights] because a lot of his caucus failed to vote for it.
XW: What is the best way for the Prime Minister to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Canada?
HF: This is the most preventable disease in the world. And the first thing that we need to do is to prevent: education and public awareness. The second thing we need to do is harm reduction, so that people who have this disease do not despair and lose hope. The third thing we need to do is do research to be able to find a vaccine, to be able to find a cure and to get drugs. What government needs to do is to make those drugs available to people without cost regardless of ability to pay, because it’s an infectious disease and we have to remember that.