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10 min

Sex, laws and Liberal promises

An interview with Hedy Fry

IN WRITING: Hedy Fry says she agreed to run in 1993 because Chrétien promised to address the Charter of Rights' failure to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Credit: Xtra West Files

Liberal MP Hedy Fry sat down with Xtra West Feb 16 to talk about Liberal promises, the party’s new leader, the push to decriminalize consensual sex among adults, and her own long-standing connection to Vancouver Centre’s queer constituents. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

XW: Tell me about Stéphane Dion. What’s he like?

HF: He’s a bit of an enigma, I would say. Stéphane is a very earnest man. What you see is what you get; there’s no sham, there’s no persona. Stéphane is very earnest, very committed. He’s so earnest and committed that he’s kind of nerdy, almost. He’s very bright, very intellectual, loves policy, has a great deal of integrity. Stéphane has this deep sense of what is right and wrong and he will not cut corners for political reasons. So he is different from most other politicians that you know.

XW: How gay-friendly is he?

HF: He never had a problem while I was in cabinet. He just went, ‘Let’s get on with it. What is the problem?’ He never understood why anybody would be opposed to it. He’s that kind of guy: ‘It’s the right thing to do, let’s do it. What are we arguing about here? Let’s just do it.’ That’s the Stéphane that I know.

XW: How close are you?

HF: Oh, not very close. He is quiet, keeps to himself. Very much always with his nose in some brief he is reading. What I know of Stéphane is what I saw in cabinet when I was with him, and what I’ve seen since: very earnest, very dedicated, very much of a man who knows where he wants to go, what he wants to do.

XW: How much influence do you think you might have in a Stéphane Dion-led government?

HF: As much influence as I’ve always had. When I ran with Chrétien I ran on the whole issue of amending the Canadian Human Rights Act [to add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited forms of discrimination]. I said, ‘That’s what I’m running on and if you’re going to do it, I’ll run.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ And I said, ‘If you give it to me in writing then I’ll do it.’ And he did. And every step of the way I was there as one of the key people that moved the agenda forward, all the way down to same-sex marriage.

XW: I never knew you were instrumental in amending the Canadian Human Rights Act.

HF: Didn’t you know that? I dedicated my whole life to it! When Jean Chrétien came to me I had just come off being president of the BC Medical Association, I had just been their chief negotiator. I loved negotiating and I loved what I was doing. But over the years as a medical practitioner I saw that my gay and lesbian patients were actually discriminated against under the law; that their access to good health, dental and medical care was hamstrung because their relationships were not seen as having any legal status. A same-sex couple together for eight years couldn’t share medical and dental benefits, couldn’t share pensions when they died. Once AIDS began, and I had a lot of my gay patients die, their partners had no rights. So I realized it wasn’t just that society was discriminating; the law [was discriminating].

I came here originally as a Trudeau Liberal believing very much in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and minority rights, and I felt, hello, this is a minority that’s being discriminated against. So when Chrétien came and asked me to run, I said, ‘Here is an issue that the Charter is falling down on.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I agree, we will amend it.’ And I said, ‘Give it to me in writing.’

And I got a letter and I ran. And that’s how I ran.

Within the first two years, when he didn’t amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, Egale said, ‘So when are you going to do it?’ I said, ‘Mr Chrétien is a man of his word and he gave me his word and I know he is going to do it in this mandate.’ The next day I went to the Prime Minister. And I said, ‘Prime Minister, I’m being scrummed out there on this and I gave my word and I told them that you will do it.’

He said, ‘Well, yes, good idea, you talk to Herb Gray.’ And the next thing is Herb Gray, who was house leader, and me and a woman named Mary Clancy who was the MP for Halifax and Sue Barnes, who was a Liberal MP from London, and Bill Graham–the four of us worked with our caucus.

Once we decided that it was going to pass and we had enough people in our caucus going to vote for it, Chrétien said, ‘Well, this will be a free vote.’ But we had to find out if it was going to pass. If it wasn’t going to pass, it was going to be a whipped vote.

I was in cabinet at the time and I got onto Paul Martin’s finance committee, which looked at the pension benefits and the health and dental benefits, and we shifted into that. And then we had the omnibus bill and immigration was changed, until finally we got to same-sex marriage. Every step of the way I was one of the key people spearheading that.

XW: So when critics say, ‘What has she ever actually accomplished in concrete terms?’

HF: Listen, I’m going to tell you something. I’ve decided that unless you are a great self-promoter who runs around beating yourself on the chest and telling everyone what you do over and over and over, people don’t know what you do. The community here supports me because they know what I do.

I used to work with the gay and lesbian community here. We used to sit down and I would have regular meetings with them. Three times a year, I would get the leaders in and I would say, ‘Okay, here’s how the system works, guys. We want to get this done, we’ve got to get the system to work us.’

XW: What happened to those meetings?

HF: Well, when we got what we wanted the meetings disbanded. Now I’m mostly talking about tranny rights. This is my next little fight that I am taking on.

XW: What are your plans to help them?

HF: Well, as always, you work quietly. You move it into the agenda within your caucus, you talk to your leader about it, and then you work with the community and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to achieve this together.’ It’s about strategizing; it’s about making things happen.

XW: Is the push to change Canada’s sex laws over now?

HF: I think you will find that the women’s caucus [the all-party Standing Committee on Women] has been working on it. The women’s caucus has a strong majority of female Liberals in there. You will see some things that will move the agenda forward.

XW: Such as?

HF: Well, I can’t preempt the committee.

XW: You’re on that caucus?

HF: No, I’m not. But I chaired the subcommittee [on solicitation laws]. When the subcommittee started we had four meetings planning how the committee would conduct itself and what we could do. Then there was the 2004 election and the committee fell off the table. When we came back I was Parliamentary secretary, and Parliamentary secretaries are not allowed to sit on committees, except the committee that they’re Parliamentary secretary of. So I had to be sitting on Citizenship and Immigration.

Then again, [the House] brought down the government before we had the time to finish all of the things that we had set out to do.

XW: But when the subcommittee finally reported in December–

HF: No, the subcommittee fell off the table.

XW: Right, but once it was reconstituted–

HF: I had it reconstituted. I worked very hard and I pushed and pushed. I wrote to [Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies], and I wrote to Réal Menard, and I wrote to the other Bloc woman, and I wrote to John Maloney. And I had Derek Lee, because he was on the Justice Committee, speak to reintroducing the committee just so it could finish its report.

XW: But the report itself in the end was so weak. What happened there?

HF: Well, the weakness was coming out of the three parties that I had felt originally would have come out with strong language on it. I thought we were going to just say: ‘Look, it’s time to decriminalize solicitation, to look at bawdyhouse prohibitions because they leave street prostitutes at extraordinary risk.’

And [had we looked at decriminalizing] bawdyhouses then we would have been able to look at issues like bathhouses and stuff like that.

But we suddenly saw that the appetite for strong language [had vanished]–the NDP did not have the same appetite, the Bloc did not have the same appetite. I think that the membership of those two parties had changed and that there was some strong sensitivities to this.

XW: Libby blamed the

Conservatives.

HF: Libby can’t blame the Conservatives. The Conservatives had two votes; four votes against two.

We got agreement on certain recommendations. But at least we thought that the three opposition parties could agree on certain things. We agreed on about two recommendations. But to put the word ‘decriminalize’ in became a problem.

XW: Would you have liked to see the word ‘decriminalize’?

HF: I would have liked to see the word ‘decriminalize’ written in a context. Just to say, ‘Let’s decriminalize solicitation’ wasn’t going to solve the problem. We had to say, ‘Let us look at decriminalizing solicitation and introducing a couple of other things as part of a comprehensive package.’

We also wanted to make sure that we weren’t suggesting that we were condoning the exploitation of women who were poor and were pushed into prostitution because of that, or women who were on substances. We wanted to make sure that all of those things that are exploitative were dealt with.

And I know Libby and I thought very much along the same lines. And all of a sudden we found that it wasn’t going to happen. The language was getting watered down by people that we thought were going to be supportive of it. At least, Réal surprised us, and then Libby said there wasn’t as much of an appetite within her caucus. So both John and I–who were busy thinking, ‘hello, this is what we were going to do’–went back to our caucus and said, ‘Well, look, there’s no appetite with these guys, we’re going to lose it anyway so let’s just try to find some accommodation here.’

It was not the best report that I would have liked to have seen.

XW: So if the Liberals form the next government, what will you do to decriminalize consensual sex among adults?

HF: Well, I would like to see the idea that you should equalize the age for both anal and heterosexual sex. That is something that I know we would do if we formed government again.

XW: What do you think of the Conservative bill to increase the age of consent from 14 to 16?

HF: I don’t agree with it. We don’t have to like it, but 14-year-olds are having sex, 13-year-olds are having sex. This is a reality. So what are we going to do? Criminalize these 13-year-olds?

We need to ask ourselves: What do we need to do to ensure that we bring up our young people to make decisions that are in their own best interests, and give them the skills and tools that they need to keep them safe? We send our children out into the world without any information. You can’t keep having an ostrich mentality.

XW: Do you think the Conservatives will stay in power long enough to get it passed?

HF: That will be up to the electorate to decide.

XW: Will the Liberals vote against the bill when it comes up?

HF: We haven’t discussed it. I know that we did not bring it in when we were being urged to. It was something that we felt strongly against. So it’s my feeling that we will vote against it. Whether one or two people will do their own thing, as is wont to do sometimes in political parties, I don’t know. I will be voting against it.

XW: Little Sister’s got denied advance funding by the Supreme Court of Canada. Is it time for a Liberal government to review Canada Customs and its ability to censor?

HF: The very first time that this came out, I went to the minister of Revenue Canada at the time and we talked about this issue. And basically, the legal people said that the Butler decision [on obscenity] made it very, very clear. If people in Customs obeyed the Butler decision then they couldn’t be doing the kinds of stuff they were doing with Little Sister’s. It’s about training Customs officials. It is about ensuring that they understand the law. It’s something that I haven’t seen change. How do you get Customs officials to be trained properly? I don’t know.

I’ve been pushing that; can’t get anywhere with the bureaucrats. The Liberal government cannot change the law. All we can do is say to the bureaucracy: ‘Please train your people.’

XW: Which law do you mean?

HF: The Butler decision defining obscenity. Ministers are not allowed to involve themselves in how a department works or trains, and the management of the department. That is hands-off. We don’t train them; the bureaucracy does.

XW: Last question: Lorne Mayencourt may be running with the Conservatives as your opponent in Vancouver Centre next election. What do you think of that?

HF: Well, somebody’s going to have to run for the Conservatives. I’m just a little surprised that it’s Lorne. I mean, I know Lorne, I’ve worked closely with Lorne. I didn’t think Lorne would go for a gang like that.

XW: Why?

HF: Here is a party that voted every step of the way against every single piece of same-sex equality, who said the most heinous things in the House about gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgendered persons. Here is a government that has cut the Court Challenges Program, which brought forward the ability for case law and for the courts to be able to look at discrimination. Killed it! Killed it completely.

Killed the homelessness programs, and now said that they’re putting money into something new. I don’t know what that is, but they took the money away. What they’re doing, which is very clever of this government, is that they take away money and then they put it back in at one-third of it. And they call it something new and say, ‘See, we saw that the Liberal program is not getting results and we’re putting in a new program’ with less money.

How could Lorne go for a group like that? I don’t get it.

Cancelling 12 out of 16 [Status of Women offices]–Vancouver no longer has a Status of Women government office. Vancouver, which has the Downtown Eastside where women are in need of protection, no longer has an office. Lorne would support these people who don’t want to support the safe injection site? Who think that people who are addicted should not have access to harm reduction?

Lorne would go to these people? But if he does, I guess he’s going to have to realize that he’s now going to have to be responsible for all of the things that they stand for. And I’m going to hold him responsible for those policies if he runs for them.

We know that this is a leader, Mr Harper, who actually rules with an iron fist. This is not a case of, ‘Well, I’m gonna go there and I’m gonna fight. I’m going to be a tough little person and fight.’ The media know what he’s like. Everyone is told what to do. He controls everything. Do you think Lorne is going to say, ‘I’m going to go there and change Stephen Harper’s mind?’

Why is he even running with that pack? I don’t get it. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. But if he does, I’ll hold his feet to the fire!