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Is Quebec still Queerbec?

Election debate avoided new report on homophobia

On Mar 6, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission tabled a sweeping, 100-page report on the state of homophobia in the province. The authors of the report declared that Quebec is “not a homophobic society.” But the report also pointed to severe inconsistencies in how social programs and government services are administered to queer citizens.

“It is quite clear that Quebec is quite a progressive society and not a homophobic one,” says Marc-André Dowd, the commission’s vice president, an attorney who himself is gay. “In a homophobic society, the government would not commission a report of this kind.”

The report, commissioned by the Liberal government in 2005, was tabled after two years of research and consultation.

But while Quebec has been at the forefront of positive legal changes for lesbian gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people — the province was the first to pass human rights legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1977 — the report acknowledges ongoing social problems for queer people, including increased rates of depression, alcoholism and substance abuse, psychological distress and suicidal tendencies. The report points to social stigma as the prime culprit.

The recommendations made in the report are widespread. The report suggests that a uniform campaign to counter homophobia should be taught in all Quebec schools; that an advertising campaign similar to those that raised awareness of issues like smoking, drunk driving and violence against women be mounted; and, perhaps most importantly, that the fight against homophobia should be part of an assigned portfolio for a government minister, so that someone can actually be held responsible when queer issues arise.

Perhaps most notably for social conservatives, the report insists that religious schools not be exempted from any antihomophobia campaigns.

Fo Niemi, who chaired the last Quebec Human Rights Commission inquiry into homophobia in 1994, says he sees some progress.

“This report addresses more than we managed to 13 years ago. In particular, it includes discussions of bisexuals and the transgendered. As well, the report looks at LGBT populations outside of Montreal — how those in rural areas are coping.”

But Niemi says the report shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“In the areas of social services, of justice and the police, and of same-sex benefits, in that respect, there’s been great movement forward. However, institutional recognition is still not great, and there needs to be more consistency across the board. And it raises the question: why is no one minister responsible for this? That would mean that when there was a problem, people would have someone to go to regarding it.”

As well, Niemi suggests that the high-profile fight for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage has had a downside: “In Quebec, as well as in the rest of North America, the focus on same-sex marriage has meant that everything else falls to the wayside. Legal rights are hugely important, but there are other serious considerations that this report addresses very thoughtfully.”

The report was tabled during a provincial political election that has led many to question conventional wisdom about the sociopolitical attitudes of Quebeckers. Despite the report arriving during the campaign, politicians didn’t spend much time discussing it, argues Niemi. Neither did the media. While French-language dailies La Presse and Le Devoir summarized the report’s findings, the city’s only English-language daily, The Gazette, failed to even mention it.

As well, the issue of homophobia came up during the campaign when the out leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (PQ), André Boisclair, was slighted by a radio host who suggested that Quebeckers would not be willing to support a “tappete” (Quebec slang for faggot). The incident led to a suspension of the radio host, Louis Champagne.

When the PQ’s fortunes began to slip, with polls consistently showing that the party itself was more popular than its leader, some openly questioned whether Boisclair’s sexual orientation, and his public acknowledgment of cocaine use while in office, were having a negative effect on his ability to be taken seriously. Others suggested the party’s misfortune was due to his promise of another referendum on Quebec’s possible separation from the rest of Canada.

Dowd argues the report did have a positive impact on the campaign. “Within half an hour of our publicly tabling the report,” he says, “the ruling Liberals agreed with it in principle, and said they would implement it. Within days, Boisclair had also come on board.”

Given the massive rise in popularity of Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) and its leader, Mario Dumont, the fact that this party remained silent on the issue could be seen as troubling. The election results, in which the Liberals and PQ both lost significant support while the ADQ gained more than 30 seats, suggests a seismic shift in Quebec provincial politics. A new reality is sinking in: that Montreal is as distinct from the rest of Quebec as Quebec is from the rest of Canada. There is a growing rift between urban voters and rural voters; what some view as “reasonable accommodation” of minorities others see as an infringement on the collective identity of the Québécois.

“This report got very little attention,” says Niemi. “Boisclair did not play this up — the fact is that it would not have been a big political vote-getter. There was definitely a conservative undercurrent to this campaign.”

With the Liberals now navigating their way through a minority government, the fate of the report’s recommendations is even more unclear. How the government will move forward — and how the LGBT communities will fare — remains to be seen.