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8 min

Talking LGBT issues with Toronto Centre’s Conservative candidate

Xtra sits down with Geoff Pollock ahead of federal by-election

Toronto Centre Conservative candidate Geoff Pollock. Credit: Andrea Houston
The Conservative candidate in the upcoming Toronto Centre federal by-election says his party doesn’t get the credit it deserves when it comes to LGBT rights.
 
“It was under prime minister [Brian] Mulroney that they first allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the Canadian military,” Conservative candidate Geoff Pollock tells Xtra.
 
Xtra has been talking with the main party candidates in the lead-up to the by-election on Monday, Nov 25. Read NDP candidate Linda McQuaig's interview, Liberal Chrystia Freeland's interview and the Green Party’s John Deverell. Also, read a summary of the Nov 20 debate at Jarvis Collegiate.
 
Pollock, a lawyer, is facing an uphill battle, with only 16 percent support in the riding, according to recent polling. But he says he’s undeterred.
 
When it comes to key LGBT issues such as HIV criminalization and gender identity bill C-279, he admits he is not very informed, but, if elected, he vows to “consult with the community” to educate himself further.
 
Toronto Centre has been a Liberal stronghold since the late 1980s. It is one of the most diverse ridings in Canada and home to the city’s gay village. The seat was left empty following the departure of former Ontario premier and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.
 
Xtra: Would you call yourself an LGBT ally? Have you ever attended Pride? What have you done to show that you are an ally, and why should gay and lesbian people vote for you?
 
Geoff Pollock: I consider myself friendly towards the community. I have not gone to any of the Pride events.
 
Have you ever been to Toronto’s gay village? Have you ever met with any LGBT community groups, LGBT citizens or HIV service organizations?
 
I have some friends who self-identify [as gay] within the community. I have been talking to them for quite a while about the issues that are important. One of the things that I have done, not so much for this particular community, but the whole Toronto Centre community, is I have been very involved with Pro Bono Ontario. That provides pro bono or free legal aid to those who are disadvantaged, economically disadvantaged, and it’s for civil litigation. I don’t practise criminal law whatsoever. 
 
I have a connection to the [LGBT] community because I had a client who was dismissed by his employer. One of the issues with that is there was rampant harassment based on his self-identified membership.
 
You mean, based on his sexual orientation? Like, he’s gay?
 
Yes, he’s gay. He identifies that way. There were some incredibly hurtful things that were being said about him. Harassment based on that, based on his height, based on his looks. That created an absolutely toxic work environment. I am very pleased to say he was very happy with the settlement. He has now become a close personal friend.
 
Historically, the Conservatives do not have a very good record on LGBT rights. Looking at the voting record of Conservative MPs —
 
— Well, I’ll just stop you right there. I don’t think we get credit where we deserve credit. For example, in the Canadian Armed Forces, which I served in for five years while I put myself through university, it was under prime minister [Brian] Mulroney that they first allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the Canadian military, and I believe we were the first or second NATO nation to allow that. And frankly, that was used as a precedent by the United States to bring in [president Bill] Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Up until then, the argument was "Oh my god. If we allow gays in the military the sky will fall and everything will fall apart." When we brought it in, we didn’t make a huge deal about it. We weren’t thumping our chest, which is not our way, but rather working on solving problems and protecting human rights. In the end, people saw there was no disintegration in the morale of the military. In fact, it helped improve things.
 
Can you give me another example of where Conservatives supported or showed leadership in furthering gay rights?
 
The military was the answer that immediately comes to mind. But recently, as you know, there’s been a huge issue around what’s been happening in Russia. Our foreign affairs minister, John Baird, has really been taking a leadership role by saying [the anti-gay laws] are absolutely unacceptable. This is not simply a matter of banning propaganda. Really, this is legislation that promotes intolerance. Intolerance leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. That’s something this government has taken very strong action on.
 
Similar to that, in Uganda, the government there is trying to introduce capital punishment. This is something the government is taking leadership on and looking at it not as an LGBT issue, but as a human rights issue, an issue of basic dignity and respect. This government is taking action on that and taking a firm stand, not unlike what an earlier Conservative government did with respect to apartheid in South Africa. The Conservative government said, "This is wrong. This is not a racial issue. This is a fundamental human rights issue."
 
With regard to international gay rights, at the Commonwealth level, many countries are still living with anti-sodomy laws left over from colonialism. What concrete action can Canada take? Should Canada pressure countries to abolish these laws?
 
I don’t have a surefire answer for this. That’s not an issue that we can resolve overnight. It’s ultimately something other countries [must resolve.] It’s the government’s role to draw attention to this and say these are actions and laws we condemn. This is a human rights issue. These laws are repugnant. This is not something we tolerate. And we can take a very firm stance on that. But there is a limit to what Canada can do. But sure, we can vigorously press on this. Our role is to shine a spotlight on these issues.
 
For the Sochi Olympics, we should use that world spotlight to shine it in Russia. Russia has had problems for a long time. My wife is Russian, so this is something I know a fair amount about. This has been going on for quite some time, and authorities turn a blind eye.
 
What would you like to see Stephen Harper do when he — presumably — goes to Sochi for the Olympics to support the Canadian team? Should he wear a rainbow flag? 
 
I would like to see him continue to be vocal on the issue and continue to draw attention to it. I don’t know if he should wear a rainbow flag. I would certainly like to see him be vocal and continue to make Canada’s position known. That’s something that Minister Baird has tried to do.
 
Under MP Jason Kenney, refugee policy has been overhauled. Activists say the changes have made it more difficult for LGBT refugees to seek asylum in Canada. Many LGBT refugees have spent their lives hiding their sexuality under threat of persecution. Then, when they arrive in Canada, they are forced to prove to authorities that they are gay. Do you support Kenney’s changes? How can we make it easier for refugees to come here?
 
This is one of those areas that is really unique about the LGBT community. I was speaking with a friend of mine about this issue. That is something that really didn’t occur to me before. In hindsight it became obvious, but at the time it was a eureka moment. This is really the only minority group out there that can disguise the fact that they are a minority. It’s not like being born a certain colour or gender or race. 
 
So I see how [gay and lesbian people] almost lead a dual life. This is an issue. And as I said, I had this eureka moment. It dawned on me the tremendous difficulties, and I could only begin to imagine what that must be like.
 
So how do we make it better for them?
 
I don’t pretend at this point to know. I’m still coming to grips with the problem, so I will look to the community for suggestions.
 
Let’s talk about gender identity bill C-279. What’s your position on this issue?
 
I don’t know. I haven’t developed a position on this. One thing I would do is if I was fortunate enough to be elected the member of Parliament for Toronto Centre, I will consult with the community. I want to hear from community leaders, from the ordinary citizens and residents of the riding, and that would inform how I would support or not support that bill.
 
Have you ever met with trans community members?
 
No I have not. I am very open to that, and I would be delighted to, but no I have not.
 
Many of the MPs who have consistently voted against C-279 have taken advice from religious social conservatives who have given the legislation the disparaging name "the bathroom bill" and allowed the narrative to make trans people sound like predators. What do you say to this type of rhetoric, much of it coming from within your own party?
 
I believe these issues, the very starting point has to be an issue of respect. We should change the starting point of how we talk about these issues. Rather than say they are LGBT issues, I say these are human rights issues. If you start from a position of respect, you change the entire dialogue. You change the entire conversation.
 
What are you hearing on the doorsteps from people? I imagine you’re hearing a lot of criticism about the Senate scandal. 
 
There’s unhappiness with the issue, for sure. The Canadian people have a right to be unhappy. There were four senators that abused the public trust. One of the senators resigned. The other three senators were removed from the public purse. The prime minister said that "if you abuse the public trust, you’ve got to be removed from the public payroll." I share their disappointment.
 
Do you feel the scandal will hurt you in the by-election?
 
I think the people are more focused on the economy and job creation. That’s what they are most interested in. People are happy with the way Canada has weathered the global economic crisis, but they are still very concerned. We are not out of the woods. The economy still causes a tremendous amount of anxiety for people.
 
What’s your position on HIV criminalization and the need for prosecutorial guidelines?
 
What I would say is this is one of those areas where I am, from a policy perspective — I am not very strong. I do not have a good and strong background on this. This is one of those areas where I would widely consult with residents of the community and find out their thoughts and inform myself.
 
Where do you stand on harm reduction, and do you support programs like needle exchanges?
 
This is another one of those situations, again, that I would have to consult with the community. I am not very strong on — but I want to increase my knowledge on it.
 
What LGBT Canadians do you most admire?
 
Mark Tewksbury. I remember when he won the gold medal. I was a swimmer, a competitive swimmer. Not a good competitive swimmer [laughs]. My best stroke was back crawl, and Tewksbury won the gold with the back crawl. I remember that moment when he won. You seldom see such a pure expression of unadulterated joy. That is the Olympic spirit.
 
Jaime Watt [Canadian political strategist]. He really is indicative in showing that as Conservatives, the myths that we are hateful to the LGBT community is just that, a myth. He is also just an extremely well respected and influential and truly wonderful human being.
 
Climate change. What actions do you support, and what should Canada be doing to curb greenhouse gases and stop our addiction to fossil fuels? 
 
This is another one of those areas where Conservatives have a reputation which is very negative and unfounded. Since 2005, Canada’s greenhouse gases have gone down 4.3 percent. At the same time, our economy has grown 8.7 percent, so there are actions that this government has taken. 
 
A big difference between myself and my friends in the other parties is that this is not the only environmental issue. This is one facet of it. The changes need to come in over time, to allow Canadians to adjust and allow for periods of uncertainty or radical changes in the policy. The Conservative philosophy is to move forward, not take instantaneous steps that could cause catastrophic damage to our economy, particularly when there is still a lot of economic uncertainty. [Economic] storm clouds are still looming on the horizon.
 
It’s been well publicized that climate scientists have been muzzled under the Conservatives. 
 
That’s the dialogue, but the reality is that we are very much in favour of science. We spend an awful lot on research and development though our universities and colleges.
 
I know this isn’t popular, but we, the Harper government, see ourselves as stewards of the Canadian economy, both today and for generations to come.