6 min

Ottawa candidates debate LGBT issues

Youth housing and trans rights dominate discussion

(left to right) Ottawa Centre Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna, NDP MP Paul Dewar and Green Party candidate Tom Milroy debated LGBT issues on Sept 25, 2015. Credit: Adrienne Ascah

Three Ottawa candidates took part in a debate on LGBT issues — Paul Dewar, NDP incumbent for Ottawa Centre, Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna and Green Party candidate Tom Milroy — at the National Gallery on Sept 25, 2015.

Damian Konstantinakos, the Conservative candidate for Ottawa Centre, chose not to attend and was represented by an empty chair. One World Film Festival organized the debate in partnership with the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, Ten Oaks Project, *kind and Gender Mosaic. The following is an edited version of the debate

What steps would your party take to initiate a national action strategy to address the youth homelessness crisis in Canada?

Catherine McKenna: Homelessness, questions around social housing [and] very unsafe housing is a huge issue. We have committed $20 billion to what we call social infrastructure and that includes affordable housing or social housing. That’s really key, working with really great organizations like Youth Services Bureau to look at different strategies as to how we can address very specific problems around homelessness with LGBTQ youth. We need to be looking beyond immediate fixes and work in a more comprehensive way to address these issues.

Paul Dewar: The first thing we need, and we’ve been pushing for this with the NDP for years, is a national housing strategy. We would inject money right away to build affordable housing, so we’re talking 10,000 units within the first year and we’d build in stable funding for subsequent years. When you’re trying to help certain groups — First Nations, Aboriginal, Inuit — but also LGBTQ youth, it’s not just about a roof over one’s head. We have to get the federal government back into health care and inject money into mental health services, targeting youth.

Tom Milroy: The Green Party has a robust national housing strategy. I think what it comes down to is engaging the communities themselves. The communities know exactly what they need, where they need it and how much they need and I think that’s the crux of the Green Party platform this election. The federal government is getting out of the social housing business and it’s going to be a catastrophe for the cities. Greens are anxious to engage both locally and provincially to try to assist in housing, health care, mental health and a guaranteed livable income.

What would your party do to revive Bill C-279 and ensure protections for trans-identified people?

Dewar: Since it was our bill, we would bring it back. It’s really important people understand that when we’re talking about rights that rights have to be put into law. This is why the bill was brought forward by my colleague [
NDP MP Randall Garrison]. It was really sad to see this bill die in the Senate. There were so many people behind this bill. Randall worked with everyone to get this done and it was an incredible expression of solidarity. This is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

Milroy: The failure to pass the gutted version of Bill C-279 is a concern for the Greens, but we pledge to support the reintroduction of a strongly-worded and world-class version of this bill. We’re concerned about the level of consultation and collaboration that’s gone on in this country in the last 10 years. We have an empty chair here and all kidding aside, that’s not very good for our democracy. [Konstantinakos] might have gotten skewered tonight because he represents a party whose behaviour has been bad over the last 10 years, but he’s a big boy and he signed up to do this.

McKenna: There’s still so much work to be done [for human rights] and when we think about Bill C-279 and trans rights, that really is the way we need to be going. We were thinking that we actually had this bill, then it totally got bastardized by the Conservatives in the Senate. It’s just so unacceptable. We need a new government because we need to be passing legislation. It’s also about implementation, attitudes and how we see ourselves. This empty chair here is so indicative of the inability to have an adult conversation about very difficult issues that are critically important to our society.

What will your party do to ensure that Canada’s borders remain open to LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers?

Milroy: It’s becoming Fortress Canada to a certain extent. There are many groups that wish to sponsor refugees into this country and they’re not being allowed to do so because of red tape. The holdup is at the fed end and that needs to stop. The [federal government] has decided to get out of the peacekeeping business, so we can’t take forward to other countries as peacekeepers, we cannot take forward LGBTQ issues, we cannot take forward gender issues to other nations when we’re doing peacekeeping training. It took 140 years to develop [Canada’s global] reputation and it only took 10 years to pretty much destroy it.

McKenna: The Liberal Party made an announcement today about immigration and refugee reforms. A lot of the focus was on bringing in family members, but embedded in that was reforms to how we make determinations about refugees. Right now there are “safe countries” so if you applied for refugee status because you’d been persecuted because of your sexual orientation and you were from a particular country you wouldn’t even be allowed to apply. The minister had discretion to determine these [“safe countries”] and often they were subject to trade deals. We have to have a proper process where we assess refugees on their merits.

Dewar: If you are gay, lesbian or trans in Russia and you come out you’re putting your life in your hands. This grassroots organization, Capital Rainbow Refuge, is doing such amazing work and what we need to see is it spiral to the top so it becomes part of the norm. Our refugee policy has to welcome those who are fleeing persecution and it’s in the tradition of our country. It is in our values. At the United Nations, we have to bring forward this issue at the human rights council and take it to the top because that’s where it belongs.

How will your party support the arts and equal access to arts education for students of all economic backgrounds, especially LGBTQ students?

McKenna: We just made a really big announcement about funding for the arts. The arts is critically important. If you’re someone who for whatever reason has difficulty expressing yourself because you feel like you can’t be yourself it makes a huge difference. There are so many great programs that have been shown to have so much impact for youth who are struggling with identity, persecution or bullying. We’re certainly committed to supporting that. I will be fighting for money for arts programs for youth. 

Dewar: I challenge anyone to go a day without the arts. Good luck. We need to look at how the Canada Council funds smaller projects and making sure that it includes grassroots. Some of the best work that’s been done in this city isn’t at the National Arts Centre, it’s at the SAW Gallery. It’s about film collectives and people who come together to make things happen. I think we’re all in a state of shock over what happened to the mural at Bank and Somerset. I witnessed someone throwing red paint over it but couldn’t identify the person. We have to make sure the arts are there for everyone and respected so that everyone’s voice is respected.

Milroy: The Green Party is interested in developing a guaranteed livable income for all Canadians and how much you get would be dependent on where you live and where you’re trying to live. If we could make living more affordable you could practise your art anywhere you wish. The Greens support public education to end prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We need to have more [LGBT art] in our education system.

What will your party do to end HIV criminalization?

Dewar: It’s really important that we don’t criminalize people’s [HIV] status and we’ve been doing that for a very long time, but we also have to take into account times in which there might have been abuse of power. The stigma that comes with being positive means we’re driving people down and people aren’t able to be open about their status. We also have to do a massive public education campaign about what it means to be HIV positive. We have to take this out of the criminal courts and put it into the public domain. Criminalizing status isn’t working.

Milroy: The Greens are very interested in removing that particular aspect of the Criminal Code. In addition to that we also believe education is key with regard to transmission of HIV. The government should be taking a leadership role in that area but that requires a sensitive touch, consultation and communication at a very sophisticated level that we haven’t seen in 10 years. Something fundamental needs to change and it’s not going to happen unless we develop better skills at consultation, collaboration and discussing this with the communities that are affected the most.

McKenna: There are going to be situations where there are problems and we have seen a couple situations like that, but this is where you have discretion of judges. You don’t criminalize this particular behaviour. The [Harper government] would point to the most extreme version of a situation and say this is why we have to legislate because your children are going to be unsafe. The reality is we already have laws. In this situation, decriminalize and give judges the ability to do their flippin’ job, which is to determine what the sentencing should be in a particular case.