World Conference against Racism
4 min

Hedy Fry talks about Commonwealth meetings past

With Harper at the Commonwealth Heads of
Government meeting in Perth, Australia, promising to make the decriminalization
of homosexuality an issue, I spoke to the former minister of state for
multiculturalism, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, about her experience
bringing up the issue at these kinds of
Commonwealth meetings.

Fry: After we passed the Canadian Human
Rights Act amendment, everywhere we went, we took issues of GLBT rights to
multilateral forums, whether it was the Organization of American States,
whether it was the Francophonie, whether it was the Commonwealth, and the
United Nations, because we felt it had become an essential part of human
rights. We kept adding it, even at the Durban conference, where Canada played a
significant part in cleansing the hate of that document – which nobody knew
because the day after, 9/11 occurred – this was a United Nations conference on
hate, xenophobia, discrimination and other forms of intolerance. We took this
as a form of hate, xenophobia and intolerance that should be eliminated. We
were never really successful the first time around, because we were introducing
a very new idea, but it slowly — as we did it time after time, every time these
organizations meet — it became a commonplace thing, and the debates began to
shift to acceptance and understanding. You’ve seen in Europe and other
countries, and how the United Nations is starting to respect and look at this

Xtra: Speaking about the Commonwealth in
particular, there are a lot of countries there that cling to this particular
older notion that people say is the legacy of colonialism. What was your
experience with them on this issue?

Fry: Actually, the history of the experience
is one of great respect for Canada, which is extraordinary. These countries –
especially the little countries, saw Canada as a fair nation. We went to bat
for their problems, even when Britain and Australia and the bigger Commonwealth
nations didn’t. We had a strong ally at the time in South Africa because of
Nelson Mandela, and they were always backing up Canada every time we said
anything, because they had LGBT rights in their very first constitution. I
found that intriguing and interesting.

So when we came up with issues like
that, instead of being seen as an insult, people always thought we came at it
from a principled perspective, so while they disagreed, or while they said it
wasn’t part of their culture, or some countries were very religious –
especially Latin American countries – they did not see it as an appropriate
thing. They didn’t scoff at it. Especially in the Commonwealth – they went
“Canada, you’re always leading the pack. Maybe we’re not ready for it here,”
but it was never nasty or heated debate. It sunk it.

I always introduced the
concept of minority rights, and for [many] countries, the concept of minority
rights was not necessarily acceptable because many of them had a major tribal
body that governed and they hated the other little tribes, or countries like
India didn’t want to talk about minority rights because they had all of these
other little groups that were going to ask them for equality and that wouldn’t
do. But where Canada came in, we brought things forward from a principled point
of view – we didn’t denigrate anybody, we just said we’re doing it at home, but
we find that minority rights makes for countries in which these groups settle
down and start moving in the same direction to build a nation. Wherever people,
no matter how small the minority is, do not have a sense of belonging or
acceptance, they will always seek revolution. If you’re looking and talking
about creating peace and resolving conflict, this is one way to do it.

That has
always been our argument, and we brought it into the bigger context so that people
didn’t see it as something salacious, but it allowed the message to be given
with a spoon of sugar. It allowed the message to be brought to cultures that
are very different.

For instance, I remember in 1995 at the Beijing
conference when the issue of abortion came up, and it was huge. Nobody could
get past the word, and there was great controversy and great anger, and
eventually after two days of debate, Canada was asked to chair a small
committee to cut through and get the thing moving, and we brought it up as an
issue of public health. We said that over two million women – at that time – in
the world were dying from unsafe abortion, from sepsis, and so on. If we have
too many people dying from a flu or a disease, we would be calling it a public
health issue. It allowed it to be discussed and put into the conference, and
many of the countries found it easier to accept it.

Canada had a way at one time,
instead of going there with a big stick and hitting people, which is
patronizing to countries who are sensitive to colonialization, we found that we
were able to achieve a great deal more. If you look at some Latin American
countries in the OAS, they are supporting LGBT rights. If you look at some
Commonwealth countries, they have moved forward to do this. Change is
long-term, as we all know. Rome was not built in a day, just to be trite. But
you had to move it forward, and we’ve always done that. The idea that LGBT
rights is on the table, and Australia and Britain are bringing it forward,
shows that Canada’s presence has been lost. These are the guys who have taken
up the torch and run with it, which for people like me, who have been there and
knew what our presence meant, is kind of sad.

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