5 min

Robinson’s bill may pass without him

Bill-250 vote coming as Robinson takes healing leave

CAREFULLY WORDED STATEMENT. Out gay MP Svend Robinson has bowed out of politics - for now. His Bill C-250 is expected to pass the Senate by a small majority this week. Credit: Xtra West files

Groups opposed to gay rights are using the resignation of Svend Robinson in an attempt to stop his hate crime bill, C-250, from passing through the Senate and into law.

“The process of amending the Criminal Code of Canada must be beyond reproach,” Charles McVety told media Apr 20. McVety is the president of Canada Christian College and also president of Canada Family Action Coalition.

“It is problematic to have criminal laws written by a legislator who, by his own admission, is guilty of socially destructive grand theft.” Robinson’s sponsorship of the bill is sufficient reason to question the “integrity” of the legislative process, he said.

Bill C-250 seeks to add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited types of hate propaganda in Canada. Passed by the House of Commons by a margin of just 30 votes last September, the bill is now in the Senate, where it’s encountering organized opposition, including filibustering by a group of Liberal and Conservative Senators.

Robinson was scheduled to return to Ottawa from Vancouver Apr 19 for a final round of lobbying prior to the Senate vote. Instead he took a medical leave of absence after announcing at an Apr 15 media conference that he had stolen jewellery.

Gilles Marchildon, executive director of the national gay lobby group Egale, isn’t impressed with McVety’s argument that Bill C-250 be killed because Robinson authored it.

“If that’s the best shot they can take on the bill, our work is done,” he says. “They’re not thinking.”

Marchildon and Egale announced Apr 15 that they stand “firmly behind Svend” as he works through his “ordeal.”

“It does not take one iota away from what he’s done over the past 25 years as a parliamentarian,” said Marchildon, in an interview with Xtra West.

“Svend has been a bold and effective champion of equality and a role model for countless lesbian, gay, bi and trans people,” Marchildon added in a media announcement. “He has made Canada a better place for all those who are different. Despite the difficulties he is now facing, he continues to demonstrate his personal integrity in the way he is handling this matter.

“Svend is a trendsetter. He came out as a gay MP back in 1988, an act of incredible courage. … He has show that not only can a politician be open about his or her sexuality, but that they can continue to win elections after doing so.”

Donna Wilson, executive director of Vancouver’s gay and lesbian centre, applauds Robinson for his “consistent and courageous leadership” on rights issues. His temporary absence “leaves a huge gap” in that leadership, she says. But if Robinson chooses to leave politics in the future, he can know that he’s “been an inspiration to each one of us to continue that struggles.” Members of local and national queer communities will continue to assert themselves, recognizing we each have a responsibility to bear, Wilson says.

Marchildon said Robinson “deserves a huge amount of credit for Bill C-250. He’s been working on this for 10 years.”

Contrary to claims by some religious leaders, added Laurie Arron, director of advocacy for Egale, the bill “will not lessen freedom of expression or freedom of religion. Only the worst hatemongers can possibly be caught by the Criminal Code’s hate propaganda laws.”

If Robinson’s bill passes, it will add sexual orientation to the list of forbidden types of hate propaganda in Canada. That would make it illegal, for example, to distribute booklets urging people to “kill all faggots.” The bible and other religious books or sermons would not be criminalized, provided the speaker or author makes an argument, in good faith, based on a religious point of view. Canada’s Attorney General also would have to give an okay before any charges could be laid.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week. Though a bare majority is expected to vote in favour, some commentators believe the vote is unpredictably close and vulnerable. Some Liberal Senators have joined with Conservative Senators in claiming that the bill violates freedom of religion. Extensive stalling tactics and procedural wrangling prevented a final vote in the past two weeks.

Robinson, Canada’s first out federal politician and a longtime champion of human rights, cried as he told the media conference, held in his Burnaby riding, that he had pocketed a piece of expensive jewellery while attending a public sale. The item was a ring valued at $50,000, it was later revealed.

“Something just snapped in this moment of utter irrationality,” he said.

“I did this despite knowing full well that the employees who were there recognized me and did so in a context where I had provided to them my full name and contact information in writing, and that the entire area was under electronic surveillance.”

Reading a prepared text, Robinson frequently leaned into fellow NDP Member of Parliament Libby Davies, who sat to his left at the press conference. His partner, Max Riveron, sat at Robinson’s right and draped an arm over his shoulder.

Robinson said he realized he must return the jewellery after leaving the building but was “too afraid to go back.” After spending the weekend unsuccessfully trying to return the ring, he went to police and gave a full account of what happened. He has retained famed Ontario lawyer Clayton Ruby and is waiting to hear whether there will be charges. The auction company has since stated that they will not pressure the Crown to lay charges, and will endorse whatever the Crown decides.

It was also later revealed that Robinson had shopped for a ring worth up to $10,00 for Riveron just days prior to the incident at the auction.

In a carefully worded statement that left open the possibility of a future re-entry to politics, Robinson announced at the news conference that he had stepped down “at this time” as the federal New Democrat candidate for Burnaby-Douglas riding and is seeking professional medical help “to understand and deal with these issues.”

Robinson said he has been experiencing “great inner turmoil,” particularly in the past several months.

“The reasons for this are of course intensely personal, and I am not prepared to discuss them, but among others relate to the cumulative pressures of dealing with the emotional consequences of a nearly fatal hiking accident.”

That 1997 accident nearly cost Robinson his life after falling over a cliff, hurting his head and laying unconscious for two hours. He had major surgical reconstruction of his face following the accident but was back working within several months.

Vancouver media have turned to psychologists to explore whether Robinson suffered permanent brain damage, post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression leading to the recent events.

“As you can imagine, this has been a nightmare,” Robinson told the news conference. “I cannot believe that it has happened, but I am human and I have failed.”

Davies told media that federal NDP leader Jack Layton and caucus were behind Robinson “100 percent.” And she reminded people of his contributions as an activist parliamentarian.

“Think about gays and lesbians, aboriginal people, or international affairs. People who have no voice. Human rights. Svend has been there and is still there for all those people.”

Davies described Robinson’s theft as a “very grievous mistake. He did something wrong. But true to who he is, he acted quickly to take responsibility for it.”

Robinson pledged to “not seek to in any way avoid full responsibility for my actions should charges be laid in these circumstances.”

Tim Stevenson, a gay Vancouver city councillor and former provincial NDP cabinet minister, says he can imagine how the “grinding” stress of political life, combined with a nasty accident, could lead to such seriously bad judgement on Robinson’s part.

“Politics is a tough life. When you’re pushing the edges to bring about societal change as Svend has over the years, it takes its toll. I don’t think Svend realized how much. His accident compounded that and he worked so hard [after the accident] to get back at it.”

Stevenson would like to see Robinson “serve again in some capacity” after getting therapy.

“His dedication, his zest for life and his courage are exactly what we need in public life. It’s a rare combination Svend has.”

Stevenson says he hopes the “public will give him a second chance as they gave [BC Liberal] Premier Gordon Campbell on a much larger mistake.” Campbell was charged with drinking and driving while on vacation last year in Hawaii.