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9 min

Talking LGBT issues with Toronto Centre’s Liberal candidate

Xtra sits down with Chrystia Freeland ahead of federal by-election

Toronto Centre Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland at her campaign office on King Street. Credit: Andrea Houston
The Liberal candidate in the Toronto Centre federal by-election says she is a strong LGBT ally who, if elected, will continue to fight for the rights of queer people in Canada and abroad.
 
Xtra has been sitting down with the main candidates as the race heats up and the campaign heads into the final week. Read NDP candidate Linda McQuaig’s interview with Xtra
 
Xtra was scheduled to chat with Freeland for  20 minutes, and although the interview ran long, to almost half an hour, there wasn't time for Freeland to answer questions on several key issues, including her position on HIV criminalization, harm reduction and gender identity bill C-279
 
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.
 
The Toronto Centre by-election is Monday, Nov 25. The candidates will participate in a debate on Wed, Nov 20 at Jarvis Collegiate.
 
What are the top three issues facing Toronto Centre?
 
The first is a really big personal issue, the thing that brought me into politics. It’s this really deep conviction that the way that the world economy works has changed, and it’s changed in a way that has created lots of great stuff, like iPhones and digital tape recorders, even hair dye. You can’t deny that there’s lots of great innovation. Also, the wonderful consequence of globalization is hundreds of millions of people are raised out of poverty. Globalization has done more than any world bank programs were ever able to do.
 
Having said that, one of the other consequences, and it’s important to put these things together because it’s two sides of the same economic coin, is increasing strain on the middle class, and it’s a strain all through the life cycle. Young people are finding it harder to get a job. The unemployment rate in Toronto for young people is 18 percent. That’s really high. That puts a strain on families, too. You know, 43 percent of Canadian families with children in their 20s have had those children come back and live at home, and I think that is one of the things contributing to huge levels of personal debt. Canadian families right now have $1.66 of debt for every dollar of exposable income. So we’re not seeing reflected in our daily cappuccino intake really how bad the economic situation is because we're subsidizing these strained lives with consumer credit.
 
Then for the people who have jobs, they feel their jobs are increasingly insecure. All of us have felt that, shifting from secure jobs to contract work, wondering where your job will be. Older people are feeling like they can’t afford to retire. And if they can retire, their pension is just not going that far. So this strain on the middle class, I think, is the biggest issue for us all. Full stop. If we can’t get that right, all the other great things that we have — Canada’s incredible diversity, incredible multiculturalism, Canada’s tolerance, all those things — we are not going to be able to maintain them if the middle-class economy continues to stagnate.
 
The promise I can make to the voters in Toronto Centre, the promise my party can make, is we have identified this, and we are the first to have identified this as our central, driving issue. It’s the thing that wakes us up every morning and we go to bed thinking about at night. Justin [Trudeau] was the first guy to talk about it. There was a lot of denial, especially from the Conservatives. They said, "Oh, you know, the economy is great." Well, it’s actually not that great. Growth is 1.7 percent. Now that we have been pushing on this, people are responding. That’s in one way sad, but in another way giving me the courage of my convictions. Every single person I talk to in Toronto Centre is worried about some part of these issues. So, we are the party, and this is the issue. This is the issue that brought me into politics.
 
If you worry about this, and you agree with me that it’s really complicated and that these are actually new problems to which there aren’t super obvious answers, then vote for us and join us in working to figure this out.
 
The second major issue that is really important to me, particularly for Toronto Centre, is maintaining and supporting this amazingly diverse community. That diversity is manifest in that half the people in Toronto were not born in Canada. What’s amazing is that we’ve done that as a country. We are so happy about it. We need to support our immigrant communities more. And diversity is crucially manifest, particularly in Toronto Centre, with being this great centre and this magnate for Canada’s LGBT community, and we really need to support that and support the individual people living in this community, support the community institutions, but also really say, ‘Wow, we are so lucky this community is our community’ and see it as a real jewel in the crown of Toronto.
 
The third issue that is really crucial is transit and infrastructure. Everyone who lives in Toronto Centre sees that we are a city bursting at its seams. In a way this is a nice problem to have. It’s the problem of success. More than 100,000 people a year move to Toronto. That’s great. People are voting with their feet and saying, "Guys, you have a great city."
 
The reality is we need to build the infrastructure to make this great city work. Failure to do that will come at a great cost. Success in doing that will yield huge rewards. Now is the time when we could use a bit of job creation. So, let’s build that infrastructure. Money has never been cheaper. We are living in an era of easy money.
 
What would you say are your key LGBT issues?
 
Mind you, all those issues I just mentioned are also LGBT issues. An area I am particularly concerned about for the LGBT community is young people. I think that’s a time in your life when you’re vulnerable. Not every single family and not every single community is tolerant. You can still find yourself as a young Canadian who comes out, finding problems from your family. You can find yourself in Toronto Centre struggling both to find your way and make ends meet. So the lack of youth opportunity, particularly for those with additional challenges — and I think LGBT youth fall squarely into that category.
 
It’s a lot easier to be kicked out of your home and be struggling with identity if there are millions of jobs around. It’s a lot harder if it’s 18 percent unemployment. So, I think it’s really important we don’t ghettoize LGBT issues. Having said that, there are some really specific issues.
 
Another area, and it was really moving for me to meet members of this community at The 519 [Church Street Community Centre], were LGBT refugees. A significant number of LGBT refugees come to Canada. That’s great. It’s great that we can provide a refuge. I have a background working in the former Soviet Union, and I speak Russian. There are lots of people fleeing from Russia. That’s a particular subsection of that [refugee] community that I can really talk to and understand where they’re coming from. It was just so heartbreaking talking to those young Russian kids. They are just in terror for their lives. That country has just become so hostile. 
 
While it’s great that they can come here, and many of them are so grateful to be here, they don’t have healthcare. That’s a real problem.
 
[In 2012, despite widespread opposition from a broad group of healthcare professionals across Canada, the Harper government implemented changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, which cut medical coverage for refugee claimants.]
 
I don’t think we are fulfilling our promise as a country. We should be ashamed of ourselves for that. Mostly, for me, it’s a moral issue, and even from a purely utilitarian point of view, [cutting healthcare] is the wrong policy.
 
Another LGBT issue, and one that I have a particular set of skills that I can offer, is my knowledge of Russia and the Sochi Olympics. This is to me rising up as a really big issue. I think it’s so important to make the point that [Russia’s anti-gay law] is not okay. This form of discrimination is not something that Canada tolerates. This is a core human-rights issue, and it’s incredibly important to Canada as a country and Toronto Centre as the LGBT capital of the country and one of the LGBT capitals of the world. It’s time to take a stand here in a way that other countries will stand up and take notice.
 
Why haven’t the Liberals thrown their support behind the NDP petition calling on the government to ban the lawmakers who have championed the anti-gay laws in Russia? And what concrete actions have the Liberals taken in this regard?
 
So, first of all I am not an elected representative of Toronto Centre yet. My ability at this point to do something is very personal. I am a person with a platform in the world talking about Russia. It’s an area I have expertise. I actually turned down a BBC interview about Russia today to talk to you. 
 
For me the important connection to make, and I think I can help people make it, is Russian repression of LGBT people is part of a broader piece of Russia turning more authoritarian. It’s part of being more repressive toward ethnic communities. It’s part of being more repressive towards women, more repressive on reproductive rights. It’s part of a wider political repression. Authoritarian regimes build their power base by becoming repressed and xenophobic. Anyone who wants to represent Toronto Centre has to be a huge advocate for the LGBT community in Toronto, in Canada and in the world.
 
In terms of practical action on Sochi and what steps [the government] should actually take, I don’t want to preempt things because the riding has to decide who they are electing. But if I am elected, I will really push, saying, "Look, I know a lot about Russia. Let me be a key Canadian voice on this issue." There’s still some time before the Sochi Olympics. How can we apply maximum pressure to Russia on these issues in a way that is going to be effective and in a way that it won’t create a backlash? We want to be really strategic in sending a message and trying to effect change. Also, what do we want to do as a country with our own athletes? What do we want to suggest? How do we support our LGBT athletes? Canadian representatives, should they be wearing Pride badges or flags? I think there are lots of ways we can make a statement. We should be building an international coalition around this.
 
And one more thing on this issue: I think the Pan Am Games will really be an opportunity for us to offer the alternative narrative. Let’s make those the most LGBT-friendly games we’ve ever seen. 
 
There has been a lot of talk about you being a "parachute candidate," so I’d like to hear your thoughts on Bob Rae’s gay rights legacy in Toronto Centre. What would you like to carry forward?
 
That’s two questions in one. On the first one, I have been doing a huge amount of canvassing, of course, which I really enjoy, and I have become this sappy, earnest believer in the power of democracy. It’s so great just talking to so many people. You know, Toronto Centre is a really big riding, but it’s actually not that big. You can have real relationships with people. Not one single non-journalist has raised this issue with me. So, that seems to be low on the list of Toronto Centre priorities. There is no back of the bus in Toronto Centre. Half of the people in Toronto are born somewhere else. The LGBT community is one of those communities to which people from around the country and around the world have moved to be free in this welcoming community. There are some societies where you have to be there for five generations to have a voice. Canada is not one of them.
 
Personally, I am really proud of my international experience, and I really see this election campaign as the biggest job interview I have ever done. I’m doing it one by one, people interviewing me as I ask them for their vote. One thing I say is, I have this international experience. I think it can be useful for Toronto Centre to have an MP that brings international experience to their issues.
 
In terms of Bob [Rae], he is an iconic Canadian public servant. It has been a real privilege to get to know him through this campaign. It’s been a real honour to campaign in this riding. The whole Rae family is so engaged. He has been such a progressive voice on LGBT.
 
I’d like to give a shout-out to [Ontario’s Toronto Centre MPP] Glen Murray and [former MPP] George Smitherman. They have both been tremendously generous and brilliant teachers, and I am proud of the role they have played as Liberals in the LGBT community. They have taken some real political risks in coming out while politicians. So I hope to build on Bob’s legacy and continue that good work.
 
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Freeland's interview with Xtra ran for 20 minutes.