Leaving No One Behind: Canada’s Role in Advancing LGBTI Issues Globally


Speech by Randy Boissonnault MP

Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 Issues at Global Affairs Canada

May 2, 2018

Colleagues and friends,

I would like to start with a quote from Minister Freeland: “Human rights have no borders. Canada believes human rights are universal and indivisible, and these include the human rights of LGBTQ2 people.”

It is a delight to be speaking today with diplomats – both those who have come to Canada to advance our relations and common interests, including the aforementioned universal human rights – as well as Canadian diplomats, here at headquarters and at our missions around the world.

The Prime Minister appointed me as his Special Advisor on LGBTQ2 issues in November 2016, to advise him on the development and coordination of the Government’s LGBTQ2 agenda. I knew this mandate would have a strong domestic focus, and would also adopt an important international role to support the Prime Minister’s international objectives. To support me in my work, a new LGBTQ2 Secretariat was created within the Privy Council Office, to provide me with advice and to work across government to support LGBTQ2 inclusion in public policy development.

The Government, and the Secretariat in particular, have invested considerable energy and commitment in advancing the human rights and well-being of LGBTQ2 communities in Canada.

One of our early milestones as a Government was the passage of Bill C-16 in June 2017. This legislation protects transgender, gender non-binary, and two-spirit Canadians from discrimination and hate crimes by adding gender identity and expression to existing lists of protected grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.

In November 2017, the Prime Minister issued an official apology in the House of Commons for Canada’s role in the systemic oppression, criminalization, and violence against LGBTQ2 communities. Through criminalization, surveillance, threats, and firings, spanning from the 1960s through to the early 1990s, the Government of Canada made it clear to thousands of LGBTQ2 Canadians that the state saw them as “less than,” and even as threats to national security.

Many Canadians whose livelihoods had been destroyed were in the House that day. Looking them in the eye, the Prime Minister said: We are sorry. We will never let this happen again.

We did not know in that moment that the apology would reverberate in news headlines around the globe. In Arabic, in Chinese, in French, in Russian, in Spanish, the world saw our clear and unequivocal apology – our determination to restore trust and build relationships with LGBTQ2 Canadians in order to ensure that these injustices will never happen again.

We know that the Apology does not bring an end to our efforts to support LGBTQ2 inclusion. Rather, this is the beginning of an ongoing process to open doors previously closed to LGBTQ2 communities, to strengthen domestic human rights, and to ensure equal access to federal programs for all LGBTQ2 people.

Our work with and for LGBTQ2 communities takes place within the government’s broad commitment to make public policies that work for everyone. As Canada’s government strives to promote the values of diversity and inclusion here at home, it is only logical that we endorse these same values on the world stage. Just as we know that supporting a stronger, more inclusive Canadian society will help us realize our objective of a stronger middle class, we also see LGBTQ2 issues as an integral part of Canada’s human rights diplomacy and feminist international assistance policy.

You are the ones who embody these values of diversity and inclusion abroad. You do the hard work alongside partners worldwide to translate these values into local contexts. This is why I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you today and to articulate the government’s vision for equality on the international front. First, to recognize your contributions to a more just world for LGBTI persons. Secondly, to share what we have learned and what we have yet to achieve in advancing LGBTI human rights globally.

As I began to embark on the international elements of my mandate, two things became clear very quickly.

The first is that people around the world are not as different as some might think. From country to country or continent to continent, the universal human rights and core freedoms that unite us are far more powerful and important than the prejudices and mistrust that can sometimes creep up between governments, neighbours or even family members.

The second is that diplomacy – the management of relationships of all kinds in a way that is both sensitive and effective – is a particularly powerful tool.

It also became clear to me, given all of these considerations, including my responsibilities to LGBTQ2 communities here in Canada, that participating in the context of multilateral fora – where the broadest diversity of global opinions reside and where the common resolve is to bridge those very gaps – would have positive and far-reaching effects.  After an inaugural international visit to the Organization of American States, I have been to the United Nations on several occasions, and met with representatives of the OECD and UNESCO as well as the Commonwealth and the Francophonie.

The Equal Rights Coalition has also been a core area of interest for me. Founded by the Netherlands and Uruguay in 2016 and currently co-chaired by Canada and Chile, the Coalition is the first-ever inter-governmental body focused explicitly on advancing LGBTI human rights and inclusive development. It brings together 39 member states and emphasizes collaboration with civil society, multilateral organizations, and other relevant stakeholders, to better coordinate our diplomatic responses, development policies and programming.

Through all of these meetings and visits, I have gained a deep respect for the important work done by Canada’s diplomats and their international partners and wish today to thank you for that work. The commitment, drive, and strategy that many of you invest in the advancement of the human rights of LGBTI people is exemplary, and I have heard praise for our work in several countries.

This relationship-building, alliance-making, and concerted support for LGBTI people is vitally important. This work is not without risk, and I thank the countless diplomats who go the extra mile to ensure that we leave none of these vulnerable and marginalized communities behind.

But my purpose here is two-fold and I would also like to highlight some of the ways in which we can all do more to promote human rights and inclusive development for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world.

Let me begin by examining the needs. Currently, over 70 countries continue to criminalize same-sex conduct or transgender identity. Some impose the death penalty. In many other countries where there are no such laws on the books, laws such as those prohibiting pornography or “debauchery” are used to crack down on LGBTI people. In some places, these crackdowns are well organized and make use of electronic surveillance – through, for example, dating apps or other geo-locating tools – to find, interrogate, torture or even kill people on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Imagine what it is like for a young person to use the only online platform available to contact the few other people with whom they can genuinely be themselves only to discover that platform is actually a pathway leading directly to arrest, torture or worse. Sometimes that torture can take the form of a forced, invasive and medically unnecessary procedure that purports to determine that the “patient” is also LGBTI and thus a criminal, traumatising the victim on the basis of nothing more than the perceptions of others in their community.

Only in the last two decades have the human rights of LGBTI people in countries around the world become the subject of serious foreign policy consideration. A generation ago, Canadians who followed these issues focused instead on the home front, where we felt the ravages of AIDS and where we waged battles in the courts to recognize same-sex relationships. At that time, LGBTQ2 people in Canada were the subject of medical and legal attention. On some issues, they still are.

So when we have these discussions at the international level, it is important that we come from a place of humility. LGBTQ2 Canadians have been increasingly claiming their place in society, but many hurdles remain. 30% of homeless youth in Canada are LGBTQ2 – thrown out of their homes, they often find the streets safer than the shelters because of the discrimination they face. LGBTQ2 seniors fought hard to live as their authentic selves, only to find themselves now re-closeted in care homes with unwelcoming caretakers and peers. LGBTQ2 community groups work year after year for more stable and abundant resources. Intersectional discrimination exacerbates these challenges, especially for those who are racialized, indigenous, and intersex, among others.

While we extend a hand to work with other countries toward equality, let us remember our own recent past, see our own road ahead, and learn from others. We cannot seek to hector or bully other people into changing their laws. Quite simply, sermons without self-examination rarely work. External pressures are easily dismissed and can feed the myth that LGBTI people are a Western invention to be rejected and cast off like colonialism.

Real change can only be led from within. Around the world, in even the most hostile of contexts, we see concerted, courageous, locally-driven efforts to advocate for full equality. Dedicated citizen activists, supported by civil society and other allies, work tirelessly, and often at great personal risk, to create the conditions for such changes. We have seen the results of their efforts in progressive court rulings in a handful of countries. In each of these countries, activists are changing people’s lives for the better. We are all on a journey. We are all taking steps together in the same direction, towards equality.

And, as our journey has painfully taught us, decriminalisation on its own is not enough. Some of the countries that have pioneered progressive legislation on LGBTI human rights – whether in South America or Southern Africa – continue to experience some of the highest levels of extrajudicial violence and murder of LGBTI people. Transgender and gender non-binary people in particular face debilitating levels of violence, on top of hurdles to access basic healthcare, gender-affirming procedures, or simply the washroom. Broadly speaking, gaps in education, employment, healthcare, housing, and basic safety continue to undermine LGBTI people’s ability to live free of discrimination.

What, then, is the role of the diplomat, the development officer, or the trade commissioner in advancing LGBTI rights at the international level? If these battles are being won and lost in the domestic legal system, and the support of foreign outsiders is either dismissed or turned against the intended beneficiaries, how are we to advance the critical work being done to promote the full inclusion and rights of LGBTI people – work in which we are more deeply engaged than ever?

There are no easy answers to such questions, just as there is nothing easy or routine about this work. As I mentioned, LGBTI issues have only recently entered the realm of diplomacy and development work. It is difficult and challenging – nowhere more so than in the countries where it is needed the most. Yet, I would argue, this is a terrain in which Canada is uniquely positioned to make an impact.

Let me begin by suggesting a few things to avoid, before providing what I think may be some helpful principles to advance.

First, civil society activists regularly urge countries like Canada not to use the pretexts available to avoid their responsibility to promote all human rights.  I have alluded to some of them here. It is far too easy to suggest that cultural norms are too deeply entrenched in a host country for advocacy to have any effect, or that such advocacy will only make matters worse for those we are trying to help.

The security of LGBTI human rights defenders – both online and offline – is of course a legitimate concern, and one that has to form the foundation of our engagement. We must commit to “do no harm,” but it is imperative that “do no harm” not be conflated with “do nothing.” An LGBTI activist in Southern Africa recently remarked that sometimes “quiet diplomacy” can be so silent that it puts those activists who speak up at greater risk. The question should not be whether to take action, but rather how best to do so in a way that mitigates risk, responds to real needs, and increases the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Another pretext for inaction may be the mistaken belief that advancing good relations with a host country is the highest possible priority for the diplomat, even if it comes at the expense of core values such as equality and human dignity.

Fortunately, just as there are easy pretexts to avoid responsibility, there are also a number of helpful pointers to make these conversations easier to engage in. Some of this advice can be found in Voices at Risk: Canada’s Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defenders, which I urge you all to consult.

So how do we “do no harm” and take action?

First, we have to take our cue from local civil society representatives. More than anyone else, they know what is most likely to be effective with those in power, be they government authorities or other public, judicial or religious figures. They are also the ones most likely to pay the price if particular actions generate backlash or arouse hostility on the part of local governments.

This advice may change quickly over time and could vary across stakeholders, but it will almost always be valid and well grounded. In many places, these groups will not be well organized or easy to identify – this is often the case for transgender and intersex activists in particular, who, along with lesbian and bisexual women, may be marginalized within larger, often male-dominated organizations. I have heard stories about Canadian missions that have gone the extra mile to build relationships with diverse LGBTI activists. Ambassadors have opened their official residence as a safe space for LGBTI activists to meet. Foreign service officers have made themselves available night and day in cases of serious rights violations. All of our missions should hold themselves to the standard of having strong, trust-based relationships with the relevant local LGBTI human rights defenders. Building these relationships takes extensive time, effort, and consideration of security concerns. Yet it is incumbent on our missions around the world to do so.

Secondly, we must work in concert with others to move the needle in the difficult environments where the changes need to happen. Besides local civil society activists in these countries, counterpart embassies from countries of the Equal Rights Coalition, UN agencies, and multinational private sector companies have important influence and may be more prepared to exert it together in partnership with others. For example, in the context of a recent crackdown against LGBTI people, Canada and Chile brought 20 states together to seek to demarche the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country in question. This included some countries that you might not expect, and whose inclusion in the joint demarche was therefore all the more powerful. These states have continued to meet and collaborate under Canada’s leadership. In more than one country of mutual interest, our missions have engaged with the World Bank to assess opportunities to collaborate in responding to recent developments.

Thirdly, it is essential that we think creatively to determine the most effective arguments for advancing LGBTI human rights in any given context or situation. Often, these arguments are not about the universality of all human rights. Sometimes they are about specific rights, such as the right to live a life free of torture and violence, the right to privacy, or the right to healthcare services. Sometimes an argument about the economic and business costs of exclusion will have the greatest impact with your interlocutor. That is why this is a job for development workers and trade commissioners as much as it is a job for traditional diplomats, and why I am particularly delighted to be at Global Affairs, where all of this expertise comes together.

For example, it can come together in matters related to development assistance. The motto of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development is a clear one, and it has particular resonance for LGBTI communities around the world:  “Leave No One Behind.” And while the Agenda does not make direct reference to these communities, I am proud that Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, launched last year by Minister Bibeau, does. I am proud that it commits Canada to providing international assistance that is human rights-based and inclusive, premised on the conviction that all people should enjoy the same fundamental human rights. Global Affairs Canada has new projects to advance LGBTQ2 rights and inclusive development. One such project is with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which seeks to advance the human rights of women and LGBTI persons in Honduras. We have another project with the Royal Commonwealth Society to identify legal tools for interested Commonwealth governments to improve the legal standing of LGBTI persons. I would like to commend those of you working in development on finding ways to include recognition of LGBTI issues in your international assistance projects and programs around the world, and encourage you to keep thinking creatively about how Canada’s international assistance could be more inclusive of LGBTI people.

I am also pleased that Canada’s progressive trade agenda recognizes new opportunities for prosperity and for broadening supplier diversity through collaboration with private sector groups and LGBTQ2 chambers of commerce. I am honoured to share my support for Minister Champagne’s work to lead Canada’s first LGBTQ2 trade mission.

I am particularly proud that Canada has for some time been providing tailored travel advice to LGBTQ2 Canadians and that Canadian passports now features a traveller’s gender identity, whether male, female or unspecified. This change enables greater inclusion and respect for people whose gender identity differ from sex assigned at birth.

I am also pleased that our corps of dedicated consular professionals is trained to be inclusive and respectful of the diverse sexual orientations and gender identities of Canadians who may find themselves in distress around the world, often as a result of these very identities.

We are, in fact, superbly equipped to confront the challenges I mentioned earlier. And the opportunity to do so has never been closer. This summer, Canada will host the second Equal Rights Coalition Global Conference on LGBTI Human Rights and Inclusive Development in Vancouver, bringing together governments, activists, parliamentarians and others to build knowledge, networks and norms for advancing the equality of LGBTI people around the world.

Together with our dedicated Chilean co-chairs, our Government has led the charge in getting the Equal Rights Coalition off the ground by putting in place its structure and revving up its engines. But it is contributions from other member states which, together with our indefatigable colleagues in civil society, allow the ERC to make a real difference in the lives of people around the world. Supporting and facilitating the participation of a truly representative cohort of voices from all geographic regions and LGBTI identities will ensure that this conference fully delivers on its mandate. We will rely on Canadian missions around the world to help attract and facilitate their participation.

Conferences are important. They can bring people together, particularly those who need to engage with and learn from each other in a safe environment in order to best be able to pursue challenging work. But they can never replace the day-to-day effort that goes on in so many parts of the world to make life better for people who continue to suffer from persecution, hatred and discrimination. This is critical work. It is as important as it is difficult, and I have heard directly from the people for whom it is making a real difference. Changes today make a great difference in lives tomorrow.

On their behalf, I thank you for doing it diligently, creatively and, above all, effectively.

Finally, I would like to emphasize the parallel work – in both domestic and international contexts – being done to support equal rights, equal access and equal opportunity for LGBTI communities. Though the methods used to realize our objectives might look different, the commonality must be a clear and unequivocal commitment to never become complacent. We all know that LGBTI rights are constantly on shifting ground, here in Canada and around the world.

Those of us who have met with LGBTI human rights defenders from elsewhere, and with our own activists here at home, know all too well that gains for LGBTI communities can often be fleeting. I challenge you all to keep the inherent humanity and dignity of LGBTI people in focus as we work to support strong and inclusive societies at home and abroad.

This goal of inherent humanity and dignity is captured well in a story, with which I will conclude my remarks today.

Last year, I returned to my alma mater, Oxford. On this visit, I spoke at the first student-led LGBTI conference held at Rhodes House. The visit took place during UK University Pride Month. When I walked around campus, I saw pride flags flying atop every college at Oxford. I saw them hanging out of dorm windows. I saw then in shops on High Street. Oxford was not like that when I was a student in the 1990s. I was still deeply closeted then and could not have imagined such an inclusive environment. I thought to myself, “My, how far we have come.”

But to me, the most striking part of the trip was when I had lunch with one of my former classmates. By then, she was married with a two-year-old son.

I learned over lunch that her son, who was at the table attacking a plate of fish and chips, had spotted the pride flags a few days earlier. He asked this mother why they were there. She told him.

Then my friend turned to her young son. “Sevvy,” she said, “tell Uncle Randy what the rainbow flag means.” Without hesitation, Sevvy responded, “All the peoples.”

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