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How Canada became a global leader in advancing LGBT+ rights

After participating in Egale Canada's first IDENTITY Conference in Toronto, we discuss Canada's role as a glober leader in LGBT+ rights.



In May 2018 Kaleidoscope Trust participated in the inaugural annual Egale IDENTITY Conference in Toronto. For more than thirty years, Egale has been working to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and two spirit* (LGBTQI2S) people in Canada and across the world.


In the last two decades, Canada has been at the forefront of the global advancement of LGBT+ rights. In 2005, it became the first country outside Europe and the fourth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage across all provinces. Since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015, Canada has reaffirmed its commitment to global LGBT+ equality. In 2016, newly elected Trudeau appointed Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault as special adviser on LGBT+ issues.



TCEN activists, including Kaleidoscope Trust Executive Director Paul Dillane, at Egale IDENTITY Conference 2018



In 2017 Trudeau delivered a historic apology to LGBT+ Canadians in the House of Commons, saying sorry for decades of "state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection".


Speaking to a packed and emotional chamber, Trudeau expressed shame, sorrow and deep regret to the civil servants, military members and criminalised Canadians who endured discrimination and injustice based on their sexual orientation. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, the Canadian government undertook a campaign of oppression against members and suspected members of the LGBT+ community. Trudeau said:


"You are professionals. You are patriots. And above all, you are innocent. And for all your suffering, you deserve justice, and you deserve peace"


"It is our collective shame that you were so mistreated. And it is our collective shame that this apology took so long – many who suffered are no longer alive to hear these words. And for that, we are truly sorry."


The apology came with compensation for LGBT+ civil servants whose careers were side lined or ended because of their sexuality, and funding for historical reconciliation, education and memorials.

Getting the apology right, through consultation with victims, was central to Boissonnault’s work throughout 2017. He said:


“We had one mission - to make sure that the victims and survivors had a meaningful experience. We wanted to take the time to get the apology right, to make sure that we listened carefully so that the language was what people needed to hear”


“A female officer, watching from the gallery dressed in uniform, stood up and saluted. That’s when I knew we had got it right”


In September 2017, the Canadian government announced that nearly 30 victims of the anti-gay purge in Chechnya had been safely resettled. In addition to providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, Canada pressed the Russian Government to intervene to end the crackdown. The Canadian NGO, Rainbow Railroad, provided safe passage for these men out of Russia where they were under the temporary care of the Russian LGBT network.


Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told the Canadian Parliament in June 2017:


"It is our role to provide refuge to the persecuted and downtrodden, to the extent that we are able"


In the same speech, Freeland asserted Canada's role in defending the human rights of LGBT+ people on the world stage. Just two days later Canada joined Chile as co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, a global network of LGBT+ friendly states which will host its first global conference on LGBTI human rights and inclusive development in Vancouver in August 2018.


Canada's leadership comes at a crucial time, as the global leadership once exercised by the US has declined. After President Trump announced plans to ban trans people from serving in the US military, the Canadian Armed Forces responded on Twitter, encouraging LGBT+ people to join them instead.



Canada is also committed to supporting the advancement of LGBT+ rights internationally. Egale, Canada’s largest LGBT+ organisation, are active members in the Commonwealth Equality Network, a group of LGBT+ organisations working to champion LGBT+ rights throughout the Commonwealth. In January, Kaleidoscope Trust was delighted to host Randy Boissonnault during TCEN Advocacy Week in London.




Randy Boissonnault meets TCEN activists in London



Activists including Paul Dillane, Kaleidoscope Trust’s Executive Director, Steve Letsike, Founder and Director of Access Chapter 2 (South Africa) and Co-Chair of TCEN, and Pang Khee Teik, Co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka (Malaysia), joined Helen Kennedy, Executive Director of Egale, to address the opening session of the IDENTITY Conference on recent successes in championing equality for LGBT people during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2018 hosted in London in April 2018.


During CHOGM, Trudeau invited TCEN activists to meet to discuss Canada’s role in advancing LGBT+ rights across the Commonwealth and internationally.



Trudeau with TCEN actvivist Steve Letsike at Egale's IDENTITY Conference 2018



Paul Dillane, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, which serves as the Secretariat for TCEN, said:


“In recent years, Canada has shown a clear commitment to advancing LGBT+ rights"


"Many TCEN activists are not able to approach politicians directly in their own countries. By inviting these activists to the table to speak directly about their experiences, Prime Minister Trudeau has initiated a vital dialogue that will be crucial in advancing the rights of LGBT+ people globally”


During the IDENTITY conference, UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Victor Madrigal also made a speech. 



While Canada is a leader on the world stage, there are still areas for improvement at home. LGBT+ Canadians still face higher rates of discrimination, violence, mental health issues and homelessness. Section 159 of the Criminal Code continues to criminalise sodomy, although it is no longer enforced.


Health is largely devolved to local to Canada’s ten provinces. This means that there can be inconsistencies and inequalities in access to healthcare. As a result, trans people in particular have had to travel across the country to receive adequate care.



Trudeau meets TCEN activists in London



Boissonnault cites integrating LGBT+ people into medical training in a meaningful way as a priority. He also highlights that, according to a 2018 study by the Justice and Human Rights Commission, HIV status is currently “over-criminalised” in Canada. This refers to instances of HIV positive people being prosecuted for having consensual sex with HIV negative people without disclosing their status beforehand. In December 2017 the province of Ontario decided that it would no longer prosecute HIV positive men who have sex with other men undisclosed, because of virtually non-existent transmission rates.


Moving forward, Toronto will be home to Canada's first federally funded emergency and transitional housing facility to protect homeless LGBT+ youth from hate crimes. The grant for the centre will cover the cost of installing security cameras and a secure entrance area.



Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, said:


"Hate crimes against the LGBTQ community are the most violent of any hate crime and we know that these are youth-based crimes" 


"These are really big issues for us so security and cameras may seem like a small thing, but when you're a queer-identified person, you want to make sure the place where you're sleeping and you're trying to get your life on solid footing is safe and secure"




During the Egale IDENTITY Conference and Gala, Trudeau was awarded the prestigious Egale Leadership Award and met activists including from TCEN. Accepting the accolade, he told an audience of hundreds of LGBT+ people and allies from across Canada and beyond, including TCEN activists:


“I am on your side. I will fight for you, and I will fight with you”




*Two Spirit is a term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe people who fulfill a traditional third gender (or other gender-variant) ceremonial role within their cultures.



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