4 min

Why we’re taking on homophobia in Canada’s healthcare system

In February 2009, I — along with five others — filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) against Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). All of us have worked extensively in our communities addressing the broad range of health issues that exist, often as a result of homophobia.

Health Canada claims to be “responsible for helping the people of Canada maintain and improve their health” while PHAC claims they are “committed to reducing health disparities between the most advantaged and disadvantaged Canadians,” but both seem unwilling to assume their responsibility and commitment when it comes to the health of queer Canadians.

It’s long been understood that when a population is marginalized the result is a much poorer health status for that population, and it’s no different for the queer community. As a result of the marginalization that results from homophobia, queer people have rates of suicide, alcohol use, illicit drug use, depression, mental health problems, smoking, HIV/AIDS and STIs that are substantially higher than the general population. Queer people also experience higher rates of certain types of cancer and are more often victims of violence resulting in physical injuries. A 2003 literature review estimated that more than 5,000 queer Canadians die prematurely each year as a result of living in a homophobic environment and a 2001 study indicated that homophobia costs the Canadian economy at least $8 billion a year.

One of the roles that Health Canada and PHAC play in our health care system is to assume a leadership position in identifying health issues and health disparities and then partnering with provincial and terrritorial governments to address those issues. Frequently this involves funding research into the issues and developing strategies and funding streams to address the issues. They’ve done this for other populations such as women, First Nations and Inuit, immigrants and children.

While HC has commissioned a number of studies to look at health disparities in the queer community no action has resulted from those studies and not one of the many recommendations those studies made have been acted on. Both agencies claim they base their work on “evidence of need” but they largely ignore that evidence when it comes to the queer community.

A prime example of this neglect of queer health is in the area of HIV/AIDS, which disproportionally affects queer people. While both HC and PHAC have developed strategies to address the many aspects of this epidemic they have yet to develop specific strategies, policies and funding to address the epidemic in the queer community. It’s clear that the AIDS epidemic in the queer community is taking place in the midst of other epidemics like substance abuse and depression.

Other countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as some jurisdictions in the United States have developed programs that directly address queer health issues. They also recognize that HIV prevention in queer communities means also addressing the other health issues that make people more vulnerable to contracting HIV.

Health Canada and PHAC have developed specific strategies and funding streams for other populations such as First Nations and Inuit people and people of African and Caribbean descent but even though queer men comprise more than 70 percent of the AIDS cases and more than 45 percent of new HIV infections each year there has never been a dedicated strategy for addressing HIV/AIDS in the queer community.

Since filing our complaint, Health Canada and PHAC have attempted to have the complaint thrown out claiming that they do not provide services to the general public and therefore don’t meet the requirements of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA). Section 5 of the CHRA states that “It is a discriminatory practise in the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodation customarily available to the general public (a) to deny, or to deny access to, any such good, service, facility or accommodation to any individual, or to differentiate adversely in relation to any individual, on a prohibited ground of discrimination.”

If indeed both departments don’t provide services to the general public, one has to ask why Canadian taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions to fund those departments. However, an examination of both agencies’ websites would suggest that they indeed do provide services to the general public providing them with information and tools on how to remain healthy. Information on topics ranging from healthy pregnancies to abuse of older adults is freely available for anyone wishing to learn more about how those issues can impact on their lives.The recent efforts by PHAC to inform people about the H1N1 epidemic and to largely fund a national vaccination program would seem to be a service available to the general public.

In a report written for the CHRC, investigator Deirdre Hilary states, “There are several bases for concluding that Health Canada provides a service through a number of its activities which provide benefits to Canadians.”She goes on to point out that Health Canada “also makes policy decisions to address identified priorities and provide targeted programs to specific populations.”

In their response to the investigator’s report, lawyers for Health Canada and PHAC once again claimed that they do not provide services and made it clear that they have the right to discriminate in the services they provide. “It is open to Health Canada and PHAC, in administrating the statutory powers, duties and functions of the Minister [of Health], to provide funding and support for health initiatives addressed to some groups and not to others.” Even though there is a large body of research indicating the many health issues endemic to the queer community, they believe they can largely ignore those issues. We believe the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees us equality in all areas of our lives and no area is more important than the right to good health.

Health Canada and PHAC are not the only sectors of our healthcare system that largely ignore our issues. Most provincial and territorial government health departments pay little heed to our health issues. Local health authorities largely ignore our health and wellness issues and healthcare professionals get little or no training on our unique health issues. We would certainly encourage people to lay human rights complaints against their provincial health departments if they continue to ignore our issues.

At times the fight feels like David against Goliath, with Health Canada and PHAC having the full force of lawyers in Justice Canada, but we strongly believe there must be changes made to ensure all queer people have access to resources that will help prevent many of the health issues that arise.

Submissions from both parties on whether the CHRA has jurisdiction in this case will now go to the Commission for a decision.

Gens Hellquist is the executive director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition and one of the complainants. He is joined in the complaint by Sheri McConnnell from St John’s, Daniel Lanouette from Montreal, Art Zoccole from Toronto, Charlotte Rochon from Saskatoon and Phillip Banks from Vancouver, who’s since moved to Geneva.

Download the 10-page document Human Rights Complaint Against the Government of Canada: Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.