Yasir Naqvi, incumbent Liberal MPP for Ottawa Centre, is a familiar face in the community and an avid supporter of Ottawa’s gay village.
He says he is “an urban, downtown guy.”
Naqvi moved to Ottawa 16 years ago when his family left their native Pakistan, after his father was arrested for organizing a pro-democracy march. Naqvi, who was a lawyer before he got into politics, says he was shaped by those events.
“I am a product of a household where being involved in your community was always classified as your civic duty,” he says.
Naqvi sees himself as a facilitator for the community.
“I am an optimist and I believe in pragmatic, positive solutions,” he says. “This is a community that is very engaged, and people have some excellent ideas. What really gets me going is to work with communities and figure out a way forward, how to put their ideas into action.”
During his tenure as an MPP, Naqvi helped reinstate a harm-reduction initiative: the Safe Inhalation Program and Intravenous Drug User (IDU) Street Outreach program, now run out of the Somerset West Community Health Centre.
In 2011, the Independent Public Health Act, which called for an independent Board of Health in Ottawa, became law.
“Before, council members were the decision makers in public health matters,” says Naqvi. “That never made sense to me. Politicians should never be making decisions around public health.”
Xtra sat down to talk with Naqvi about the contentious Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) bill he has championed and his role as MPP for Ottawa Centre.
Xtra: You introduced Bill 106, the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, which caused quite a stir in Ottawa. Can you explain why you felt the bill was necessary?
Yasir Naqvi: It came through the advocacy of community groups like the Hintonburg Community Association who had serious issues with crack houses in the community. Basically, what the bill does is, properties being used on a regular basis for specified illegal activities can be closed up to 90 days by the order of a judge, but most importantly, the bill creates a venue for neighbours to talk to each other. The bill also had a very unique feature, that is very different to Manitoba and Saskatchewan and other provinces, and that is to create an alternative dispute-resolution mechanism. To get community associations, community folks and, hopefully, the local community councillor involved. If you have a grievance against a particular property or when you think the property is being used for illegal activity on a regular basis, there can be constructive dialogue to resolve the situation for the benefit of all. There was controversy, but I think debate is always good. As a result of the very heavy consultation that I did and the various criticisms I received, we made certain changes to the legislation to make it into a fairer piece of legislation. I think what we have seen over the last four years is more constructive conversation at the community level taking place when there are specific issues dealing with a particular property. I think we are resolving those issues far more effectively than we were in the past.
Xtra: But these channels of communication also open up the idea of community policing. When there are problems with sex workers, community associations like Hintonburg and Vanier contact the police, who act on the complaints and conduct “sweeps.” The problem is many of the sex workers actually live in these areas and as the sweeps increase, these women or men get pushed into darker areas where their work becomes more dangerous.
YN: I cannot comment on policing practices. What I can comment on and the conversations that I have had with community associations, community police officers or Crime Prevention Ottawa is to realize that sex workers are part of the community, that they live in the community and [that we need] to try and create more of a healthy atmosphere in a manner in which everyone feels safe and secure in their community. I totally agree that pushing them [sex workers] into a dangerous situation is not going to help, but by working with sex workers you could work out a good medium. But let’s not pretend that the reality doesn’t exist, that neighbours will accept sex workers. You know, that is a challenge and there is a certain stereotype associated with sex workers. If you talk to people they will probably say they don’t want sex workers on the corner of their street.
Xtra: HIV-nondisclosure laws are increasing in scope, and as you know, we have a high-profile case going on in Ottawa. There is an Ontario working group trying to get prosecutorial guidelines in place for the Crown and police to follow. What is your take on this and what could you do as MPP to help push guidelines?
YN: I have been active on that file. One, to learn about the issue and two, to engage with the attorney general and his office to make sure that we do have guidelines. I am pleased that there is a working group because these are technical documents, put in place to canvas the whole jurisprudence, the case law that exists and to make sure there is a very clear path forward for police officers, for prosecutors and the community at large as to what the policy is. The working group, which is obviously made up of experts, has a fair amount of work to do. I will certainly raise the point of my LGBT community and the community at large to the attorney general to make sure that those guidelines are there and that they are fair in a manner that everyone is comfortable with them.
Xtra: Ontario has a Safe Schools Strategy designed to help children learn in a safe and secure environment. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has diversity clubs and gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools to help gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The Catholic School Board, however, does not allow GSAs – although some do have diversity clubs or multicultural clubs. What can the provincial government do to make sure Catholic schools are safe and inclusive for LGBT students?
YN: A couple of points: one, Ontario has taken an incredible stand in creating the equity policy and the Safe Schools Strategy. The premier has been 100 percent behind it, restating and reaffirming it again and again that there is no place in our schools for any kind of bullying – homophobic in nature, gender-based, pointing to trans youth – none of it. Schools have zero tolerance when it comes to that. The second point is that it is up to the students. If the students want a gay-straight alliance or a peer-to-peer group to support each other, it’s for them to determine, not the school. I think the debate taking place as it relates to Catholic schools is that it is not that those peer groups are not permitted, it’s more around the semantics – whether you call them gay-straight alliances or something else. I am always making the point of let’s not get caught into the semantics as much as really focus on the substance. The substance is that the policy is there and that it applies to Catholics, and if students in a Catholic school want peer groups, they are entitled to have them under the guidelines… that’s the key and I have not seen instances, especially locally, where students are being denied to create groups like that.
Xtra: As long as they don’t call them GSAs?
YN: Yes. That is an issue that has come up as to the name around it, and the Ministry of Education continues to do work with the school boards and with the church. They have undertaken to look into this even more closely. It is a step-by-step process and I think they are coming around. My conversations that I have had with local school boards, teachers associations within the Catholic school board [system], I have never seen any resistance against the creation of groups or any resistance against the [Safe Schools Initiative].
Xtra: So what should they be called? I mean, it is a matter of semantics; it is allowing these kids to say that it is a gay-straight alliance.
YN: There are different names; none of them come to mind. The policy speaks to the substance; the policy speaks to making sure that there are peer groups that are available if students want to have them. That is the substance of the policy, and it gives examples of many kinds of groups, and one of them is gay-straight alliance. It could be called any variation of things. The policy speaks to the very important notion of creating schools that are safe so that when kids enter into that particular building or that playground you don’t have bullying take place of any kind. And making sure that if students choose to band together to help each other, the school should support it. So there are mechanisms in place… This is a live issue, and you are not going to change some people’s attitudes overnight. It is a matter of time. What we have is an agreement on substance, so let’s make sure that we focus on that. We get that entrenched and then we can move to another issue. If there is any community that knows how to win small victories after small victories to make them into a big one, it is the LGBT community.
Xtra: What do you think of the idea of having a gay village in Ottawa?
YN: It’s time. I have been working with Glenn [Crawford] and the Village Committee. It makes sense. I have spoken to many businesses and no one has objected. It makes sense; we all look at that part of the neighbourhood as the Village.