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8 min

Party leadership quizzed on queer issues

Where the parties stand on age of consent, program funding, trans rights, homophobia and sex work

Xtra contacted each of the leaders of the four major parties vying for your vote to grill them on issues that matter to sexual minorities.

The NDP’s Jack Layton and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May both made time to speak with us. The Liberal Party’s Stephane Dion would not schedule an interview with us before press time but offered instead Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry as a Liberal expert on queer issues.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper naturally did not make time to speak with us. The Conservative Party eventually volunteered Vancouver Centre candidate and former BC MLA Lorne Mayencourt.

 

AGE OF CONSENT

Section 159 of the Criminal Code criminalizes anal sex with any person under the age of 18 despite the fact that the age of consent for non-bum sex is 16. Courts in Ontario and Quebec have ruled that the section discriminates against young gay men but the double standard is still the law across Canada.

Both Layton and May say they stand in favour of equalizing the age of consent. The NDP’s platform document does not explicitly make this pledge, but in its “Vision Green” the Greens commit to repealing section 159 under a section titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans-gendered Rights.”

When he was running for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Dion said he stood in favour of equalizing the age of consent.

“Why would we make a difference? Once you are decided that you don’t want to discriminate, don’t start to discriminate again,” he told Xtra in August 2006.

There is, however, no commitment to repeal section 159 in the Liberal election platform. In fact, there is no mention of queer issues. The words “gay” or “lesbian” do not appear once in any of the platform document’s 68 pages.

The Liberals do commit to a review of the sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code.

“We are the ones who brought in all the changes in government including banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation,” says Fry.

“I think the Liberals can run on our record. We amended the Canada Human Rights Act and as a result, we examined every single piece of legislation to achieve real equality. Gay marriage came too under our watch.”

Mayencourt, an out gay man who has served as a Vancouver MLA for several years, says he is unaware that there is a double standard for age of consent for anal sex before apologizing for not having a “quick answer.”

 

PROGRAM FUNDING

Since taking office the Harper government has cancelled or reduced funding to federal programs that many queer people depend on. The Conservatives axed the Court Challenges Program, which helped gay and lesbian Canadians finance court challenges to government discrimination. Funding to HIV/AIDS community organizations was slashed by $26 million when the Harper government shifted its focus to vaccine research.

More recently the Conservatives eliminated several small arts funding programs. Many queer artists — especially those whose work is not considered mainstream — depend on government support to continue producing their work.

Layton promised to reinstate the funding to all those programs and was particularly vociferous about arts funding.

“The role of the arts in enabling diverse expression has been very important to me,” he says noting that as a Toronto city councillor he served as an auctioneer at fundraisers for Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

“I sincerely believe that had it not happened 20 years ago that they would not have found a permanent home for Buddies, which allowed for greater experimentation. I don’t think we would have come to the vote on same-sex marriage and we certainly wouldn’t be able to talk about the broader international issues. We wouldn’t have been able to have those discussions unless the artists led the way.” The NDP platform also pledges to reinstate the Court Challenges Program.

May pledged to restore and expand all of the above-mentioned programs, zeroing in on arts funding as well.

“In politics we don’t want to use the word ‘lies’ but when [Harper] says he has increased the budget to arts that’s false. The arts budget has been slashed,” she says. “It’s despicable that the cuts happened at all because they’re driven by the manipulation of the levers of government for their short-term electoral success. It’s unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary tradition.”

The Liberals say they will reinstate the Court Challenges Program and double its funding. They say they will increase arts funding by $530 million. Fry says a Liberal government would also restore funding cut from AIDS community organizations.

“We brought in the AIDS strategy in Chrétien’s day at $40 million per year, under Martin we doubled it to $80 million,” she says. “It’s been eroded under Harper but we would completely reinstate that funding.”

There is, however, no explicit commitment on HIV/AIDS in Canada in the Liberal platform. HIV/AIDS is only mentioned in a section about international development.

Mayencourt denies the federal cuts took place. He insists that AIDS funding “is allocated and will be forthcoming.” He also says that funding to the arts has increased under the Harper Conservatives. The fact is that while Heritage Canada’s funding was expanded under Harper its arts and cultural programming budget was cut in favour of more spending on language, sport and social programs.

 

TRANS RIGHTS

The Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) does not explicitly protect trans people from discrimination in federally regulated workplaces and services. Trans people are similarly not included in hate sentencing and hate propaganda provisions of the Criminal Code.

Layton supports including trans people in the CHRA and the hate crime provisions of the Criminal Code. He notes that NDP MP Bill Siksay has tabled legislation on both issues with the full support of the NDP.

May also supports amending the CHRA and the Criminal Code, noting that the policy is already in the Green platform.

In 2006 Dion told Xtra that he supports amending the CHRA and the Criminal Code but once again no such commitment is reflected in the Liberal platform document. There is however a promise to include “gender” in hate propaganda provisions in a section addressing violence against women.

“I would suggest it,” Fry says. “When we voted to put sexual orientation in the Criminal Code we intended it to mean trans even though it’s not a sexual orientation, it’s a gender identity. One thing I’ve been pushing for in my own campaign is to have trans people access the full set of services they require.”

Mayencourt would not speak for the Conservative Party on this issue but says that he will be an advocate for trans rights within the party in Ottawa if elected.

“I’m the only member of a provincial legislature… that has introduced a bill to include trans people under banned discrimination under the [provincial human rights law],” he says. “I will continue to do so at whatever level of government I’m in.”

 

SEX WORK

In 2005 the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws recommended that Canada legalize solicitation to protect sex workers. The Conservative government has not touched the issue since. The Harper government did introduce legislation that would ban foreign exotic dancers from entering Canada on work visas.

No party is on record supporting the legalization of solicitation. Layton notes that his deputy leader, Libby Davies, was at the forefront of the subcommittee’s work, but says that the committee’s recommendations “need to be discussed with Canadians.

“We expect to be at the forefront of that debate,” he says. “When you consider those that were lost, the lost women campaign, the terrible murder of so many involved in the sex trade, clearly the legal framework is a problem and needs reform.”

Layton was unaware of the antistripper immigration legislation but said that the party was strongly against the Harper government’s latest immigration reform bill.

May says the Greens are divided on the issue and will continue to discuss the best way protect sex workers.

“At this point we would be pursuing any reforms that make sense in consultation with sex workers and law enforcement agencies,” she says. “Certainly decriminalizing the activities of sex workers so they can seek the help of police when they’re assaulted.”

On the topic of exotic dancers May accuses Harper of imposing his philosophy on others’ lives.

“There’s certainly issues in the area of foreign exotic dancers in workers’ rights but just because there’s a history of Canadian employers exploiting them is no reason to bar them.”

Fry says the Liberal Party stands for decriminalization of solicitation.

“We hold to the recommendations of the Frasier Commission not only that solicitation is decriminalized but also the bawdy-house restrictions are repealed,” she says. “One of the things that we felt very strongly about was the women who were being exploited and being picked up off the streets, and when they do that they have to go further and further into the darker corners, making them very vulnerable to the misogynists who want to harm them. Many of the Liberals on the committee felt that the report needed to go farther.”

Nevertheless no commitment appears in the Liberal platform, and in 2006 Dion told Xtra that he’s not interested in decriminalizing the sex trade.

“I’m open to review but I’m not there yet,” he said. Dion has not spoken out about the antistripper legislation, but has announced plans to repeal the Conservatives’ other major immigration law.

Fry is less enthusiastic about stopping a foreign exotic dancer ban.  “I think this is something we have to discuss,” she says. “One of the big problems we have is that many women who come here came to be cultural dancers and then they became exploited. The issue of stripping is a different thing. If a woman does that and it’s something they want to do that’s one thing. It’s another thing if they’re brought in and forced into dancing. That’s human trafficking.”

Mayencourt is firmly against legalizing sex work.

“We have a real human trafficking problem in BC,” he says. “Individuals have been brought here from China, Ukraine, many places, mainly as sex slaves to pimps. The issue is do we think the poor should have to sell their bodies to survive?”

 

HOMOPHOBIA

We asked the leaders (or their designates) to name the least queer-friendly place in Canada and what they would do to make all parts of Canada safer for sexual minorities. No one took the bait on naming any part of Canada as homophobic.

Layton acknowledges that discrimination continues in various forms and says as prime minister he will work hard to end homophobia.

“The first thing is to be very public and immediate in denouncing it in its various formations,” he says. “Secondly you’ve got to have the laws in place to make sure that hateful acts can be prosecuted and, as you know, that work was spearheaded by Svend Robinson in our caucus.”

May says she’s finding gay people are accepted in urban and rural areas throughout Canada but would still work to eliminate homophobia.

“Attitudes need to change but the law speaks volumes to what is acceptable in society,” she says. “Putting gays, lesbians and transgendered people into the human rights code and putting them clearly into the Charter speaks volumes.”

May also lobbed a broadside at the Conservatives on the issue.

“There are people in the Harper cabinet who are gay,” she says. “No one wants to out them but certainly it would create an atmosphere of positivity to have a gay person in cabinet. There are reasons why [gay Liberal MP] Scott Brison left the Conservative Party. The party he used to belong to has been cannibalized by the Reform Party that has extremely homophobic roots. When people in Harper’s cabinet keep their sexuality extremely private and don’t want to say that they’re gay, that says something about Mr Harper.”

“I have been secretary of state for multiculturalism and I funded programs that would help society to understand and to integrate people into society the same as any minority group,” Fry says. “The first thing to help people integrate into society is to change the law, which we did under Chrétien, to include sexual orientation, to include health benefits, to include marriage. Most of us believe that there should be de facto acceptance as well as de jure and in order to do that you need programs. Under the Harper government they’ve been cut. We need to reinstate them.”

Mayencourt acknowledges that homophobia is a problem in Canada and that he encountered it when working on BC’s Safe Schools Task Force as an MLA. He says he shepherded BC’s new Safe Schools Act through the provincial legislature. The legislation requires school boards to draft codes of student conduct that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“In many ways I’d work to ensure that our school system, which is often a hotbed of homophobia, has a better understanding of what needs to be included in our curriculum,” he says.

Mayencourt denies that the presence of closeted gays and lesbians in the Conservative caucus sends a message of intolerance to the electorate.

“I think how people identify themselves sexually is really up to them. Those are personal choices that don’t belong in the forefront of the dialogue. The reality of it is what does it matter to the public if there’s a gay cabinet minister or a gay MP?

“I’ve actually done so because of the work that I’ve done in the school system, but that is a personal choice and I’ve paid a price for that.”