Members of the LGBTQ+ community have long faced discrimination and prejudice in Canada and beyond, having to fight for job protection, access to services and basic human rights.
Canada legalized same-sex marriage nearly two decades ago and the Canadian Human Rights Act has for years prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
But this year brought a heated debate over LGBTQ+ rights when it comes to transgender and other gender non-conforming children. Both New Brunswick and Saskatchewan brought in policies that require parental permission before using a student’s preferred name or pronouns at school.
And Egale Canada, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ people and issues, reported more than 6,400 anti-LGBTQ+ protests and instances of online hate in the first three months of 2023 alone.
The Canadian Press reached out to members of the multi-partisan Canadian Pride Caucus on Parliament Hill about the past year of LGBTQ+ rights and discourse. Two Liberal cabinet ministers, a New Democrat MP and a senator spoke about what they are seeing and hearing in Ottawa and elsewhere, how it makes them feel and what they are doing about it.
Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault
When he was growing up, Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre) said he did not think he would ever have a job, be loved by an “amazing partner” or work in politics let alone be named as special adviser on LGBTQ+ issues to the prime minister, as he was in 2016.
Despite those personal realities, he said 2023 was a hard year.
“It was a step backward in the march toward rights for LGBTQ people,” he said. “We had to have a $1.5-million emergency fund just to keep Pride (events) protected.”
The very issue of identity has been weaponized, he said, including through “American-style politics by Canadian politicians to try to divide the community and prey on the most vulnerable trans kids.” He called that “objectionable,” adding: “For some of these kids, going to school is the only place they can actually feel like they’re themselves.”
In 2024, there should be a conversation about how “being an ally is no longer enough,” Boissonnault said.
“These kids need people to be champions,” he added. “An ally is somebody who has your back when you’re in the room. A champion is somebody who has your back when you’re not.”
New Brunswick Sen. René Cormier, co-chair of the Canadian Pride Caucus
“The Senate is the safest place for me to be as a queer person because we deal with rights. And I was not aware before becoming a senator how important rights are, which sounds ridiculous in a way,” said Sen. René Cormier, who sits with the Independent Senators Group.
“I’ve never really had to be out in public talking about my life because I thought the life of others is more important than mine. But I consider now that it’s important for younger generations to see you can be from the LGBTQ community, you can be a senator, you can be whatever you want,” said Cormier, who was appointed on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016.
“In Canada we’re really privileged, although there’s still a lot of issues … there’s still a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be from this community. People think we’re too loud. We’re out too much,” he said.
“But I think it’s important to stand up and speak. Silence is not a solution.”
Cormier described the current time as polarizing and lacking in nuance, with a need for better education about what it means to be transgender. He said excluding those discussions from the sexual education curriculum in schools will not solve the problem.
“I find it really troubling that as a country we put kids in the middle of political games,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done there.”
That work should happen together across all generations and identities, he said.
“Because at the end, we’re all human beings and we want to be happy.”
New Democrat MP Randall Garrison
Early in his career as the member of Parliament for the riding of Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, B.C., Randall Garrison sat beside someone in the House of Commons who brought a picture of his family and a Bible to his desk every day.
One day, the New Democrat MP brought a photo of his husband, and the other MP asked if Garrison was mocking him.
“I said, ‘No. You bring what’s important to you to the House. It comes every day, and I bring what’s important to me.’ Then we became friends, despite the initial gulf between us.”
In June, Garrison released a report on the status of transgender and gender-diverse people in Canada alongside researcher Dylana Thompson. Its 29 recommendations include ways to strengthen the LGBTQ+ community so it can respond to hate.
“In the face of hate, we, as a community, can’t always depend on everyone else to come to our defence. But if you’re poor, unemployed, or sick, or have all these things to cope with, you don’t have much resilience to deal with hate on top of that,” said Garrison, who is retiring as an MP.
“If you’re suffering with all the other disadvantages of being trans or non binary, it’s difficult to even form an organization that could get a public voice because you’re too busy trying to survive,” he added.
There has been a resurgence in hate toward LGBTQ+ people online and in person, he said. He said a family in his riding had their Pride flag torn down and set on fire against their house. But he also noted the police and the local mayor acted swiftly.
“So, while I’ve seen the rise in hate, I’ve also seen an improvement in the response to hate from public institutions,” he said.
Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan
Seamus O’Regan wrote a deeply personal speech during his flight to Geneva for a meeting of the International Labour Organization earlier this year. At the time, some countries in Africa and the Middle East had called on the United Nations body to remove language from its budget about the protection of workers on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I am a vulnerable worker. I am Canada’s labour minister, but I am gay and I am married. I would not be able to work, or I would be jailed, or I would be condemned to death, if I happened to have been born in some of the member states before me,” O’Regan told the assembly.
“I was looking into the eyes of the people who would persecute me, or kill me for who I am,” O’Regan said in an interview this month. “It was both hugely public and international. At the same time, it felt very intimate and very personal.”
O’Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, N.L., said he has always spoken about how LGBTQ+ rights can feel tenuous at times, given these rights were obtained in his lifetime.
He also said that being openly gay on Parliament Hill forces people to acknowledge he is there.
“I exist, I’m not theoretical. If you’re going to take away or diminish the rights of gay people in this country, then you get to look me in the eye to do it.”
He noted that as a cabinet minister, he can make legislative or regulatory changes that he think might help when it comes to federal jurisdiction.
“But in provincial and territorial spheres — and even international spheres — I have to sometimes rely on the moral case,” he said. “I will do that, and I have done that, without hesitation.”
Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press