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Liberals face growing calls to create LGBTQ envoy, modelled on Biden appointment

OTTAWA — The Liberals are facing mounting calls to appoint a senior diplomat to advocate for LGBTQ people abroad, including from within their cabinet.
Jessica Stern, then-head of Outright International, speaks during the OutSummit in New York in a Dec. 7, 2019, handout photo. The Liberals are facing mounting calls to appoint a senior diplomat to advocate for LGBTQ people abroad, including within their caucus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, OutRight Action International, Brad Hamilton, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

OTTAWA — The Liberals are facing mounting calls to appoint a senior diplomat to advocate for LGBTQ people abroad, including from within their cabinet.

"Do we need an envoy? Do we want an envoy? Absolutely," said Randy Boissonnault, the associate finance minister.

"And they should be very focused overseas."

The Dignity Network, a coalition of Canadian groups that advocate for gender and sexual minorities abroad, says Ottawa should follow the Biden administration in creating a special envoy who can push for positive change.

The woman who holds that role, Jessica Stern, says that if Canada follows suit, the envoy should focus on amplifying the work of grassroots groups in Canada and elsewhere, while speaking with clout from the country's highest political office.

"I have seniority to get things done. I have staff to support my agenda. I have access to the highest levels of the U.S. government," Stern said in a Wednesday interview during a visit to Ottawa.

"You don't have the luxury of learning on the job. You have to be able to hit the ground running. And so you have to know the LGBTQI organizations to call; they have to trust you."

Her role, titled as the U.S. Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Persons, has existed since 2015 but was vacant from 2017 to 2021 while former president Donald Trump was in office.

While stressing that she can't weigh in on domestic Canadian affairs, Stern said there is a co-ordinated, transnational movement to erode LGBTQ rights everywhere — and every country should designate an envoy with enough staff to be effective.

"There is a rise in anti-LGBTQI rhetoric, laws and policies and violence around the world today. It is not something to be taken lightly and it is not business as usual," she said.

"We want to learn from partners like Canada and other governments around the world (on) how to create countries that are safer for all people."

Stern said she works with counterparts appointed by the governments of Britain, Italy, Argentina and France to co-ordinate efforts and share the work.

She said she is also in touch almost daily with activists in Uganda, whose government recently enacted a new law that allows judges to jail people for up to 10 years for same-sex relations and even sentence them with the death penalty for certain acts.

"We divvy up areas of priority, and places of opportunity, and that makes the work easier and more effective for all of us," she said. 

"No country is perfect. No country has all the answers."

The Dignity Network says something similar to Stern's position would be the ideal fit for Canada, since it focuses on amplifying the work of civil-society groups while bringing clout from the nation's highest political office.

In a report submitted to Ottawa last fall, the coalition said the role would better co-ordinate work between the Women and Gender Equality Department, immigration officials, foreign-aid programs and Canada's diplomatic missions abroad.

The group said the position could be designed to mirror other special representative roles, such as Canada's envoys on combating antisemitism and tracking the situation of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar, as well as the country's ambassador for women, peace and security. 

Appointing an envoy is one of six demands from a petition by the non-profit Momentum, which has garnered support from major LGBTQ groups in Canada.

Boissonnault, a former LGBTQ adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for domestic issues, says he supports having an official co-ordinate Canada's advocacy abroad.

He noted that under a plan announced last summer, The Liberals have committed to spending up to $10 million per year for LGBTQ projects abroad, such as through the human-rights group Equitas.

Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien said Thursday that federal funding is not going to any such projects in the U.S.

"We of course are here to support in any way that we can, but at present, that's not on the table," Ien said in an interview.

Sherwin Modeste, the head of Pride Toronto, said he supports the idea for an envoy, but groups in the Caribbean and Uganda are looking for resources, not grandstanding.

"We cannot be directing how the developing world should be doing their business," said Modeste, who grew up in the Caribbean country of Grenada.

"There is a need, and hopefully at some point in time, we will get there." 

Stern's visit comes at a time when the FBI is reporting a rise in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and while American conservative groups protest drag-queen performances and push to eliminate gender-affirming care for transgender people, especially minors.

She would not say whether her own country is a safe destination for LGBTQ Canadian visitors, instead saying that guests are welcome.

"LGBTQI rights are an evolving concept in our country. We don't have all the answers; we still have anti-LGBTQI extremism in the U.S.," she said.

"When we work on these issues, we do so from a position of humility. We think that we sink or swim together."

At a May panel, the refugee-resettlement group Rainbow Railroad said it saw a huge jump last year in people from the U.S. considering claiming asylum in Canada, particularly after the Supreme Court struck down abortion rights.

"These are both people who are from the United States and people who are from outside the United States and making the request for help to us directly," said Pax Santos, liaison to the group's CEO.

Rainbow Railroad said Thursday that the U.S. ranked eighth in the number of requests for help the organization received in 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version cited Pax Santos at Rainbow Railroad, a refugee-resettlement group, as saying that the United States last year became the No. 2 location in terms of the number of requests for help the organization received in 2022. The previous version also referred to Santos as a program manager.

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