News  Queer rights back in citizen guide

Victory for LGBT rights groups after Immigration Minister Kenney removed content

A fter a three-month battle between the federal immigration ministry and LGBT rights group Egale Canada, previously omitted references to LGBT rights legislation will return to the new citizenship guide.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, said she received the concession over the phone last week. “They said that they would make the changes in the first revision,” Kennedy said.

Egale Canada has been lobbying the immigration ministry to replace the excised passages since last December.

The ministry’s reversal comes in the wake of a Canadian Press story on March 2, which reported that federal immigration minister Jason Kenney had ordered the removal of all references to queer rights landmarks such as the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969 and the legalization of equal marriage under Bill C-38 in 2005.

Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show that prominent members of the immigration ministry urged Kenney to keep the passages that had been in the first draft of the guide.

Neil Yeates, the deputy minister for immigration, sent a memorandum to Kenney in August asking for the clauses to be reinserted. The memorandum reads, “[I] recommend the re-insertion of the text boxes related to…the decriminalization of homosexual sex/recognition of same-sex marriage.”

The 63-page document, published last November and available online, does not include any of the suggestions made by the ministry. The only reference to homosexuality appears in a caption to a photograph of Olympic gold-medal swimmer Mark Tewksbury, describing him as a prominent gay and lesbian rights activist.

Kennedy says her first priority now is changing the online version, which, “could be changed very easily…with the click of a button.”

She says the ministry have refused to do so because they do not want discrepancies between the electronic version and the printed version, 500,000 of which were produced at first printing.

Kennedy expressed concern about the implications of Kenney’s decision to leave the version without reference to queer rights online. “This is confusion about a very important issue…about social justice in Canada,” Kennedy said.

Before the Canadian Press report was published in media outlets across the country, the minister said the absence of queer rights content was an oversight.

Kennedy met with Kenney in early December to discuss her concerns about the guide. She said the minister took no personal responsibility for the omissions at the time. “He told me that it was a mistake,” Kennedy said. “He assured me that he would fix the oversight.”

Following the release of internal documents from his ministry, Kenney maintained that he had no role in the removal of the queer rights material. On March 3, the Canadian Press reported that Kenney responded to a question on the subject by saying, “I did not do such a thing. No, no, you are wrong.” Alykhan Velshi, the minister’s spokesman pointed out that, “the minister’s signature isn’t on any decision note or anywhere else,” in the documents obtained by the Canadian Press.

Neither the minister nor his spokesman elaborated on their comments. This led to speculation among bloggers and journalists that someone else in Kenney’s office might have made the changes.

However, in the House of Commons on March 4, just one day after denying any role in the cuts, the minister said he took, “full responsibility,” for the citizenship guide.

Asked whether she thought the minister had been deliberately misleading in their meeting last year, Kennedy said, “I know what he told me and I know the Canadian Press story. You have to draw your own conclusions from that.” She said her organization was not focusing on whether or not Kenney had been truthful last December, but on trying to “fix the problem.”

Kenney has long opposed equal marriage rights, arguing against the Civil Marriage Act in the House of Commons when it was debated, and passed, in 2005. He holds that “homosexuals” should be able to marry, as long as it is to someone of the opposite sex, as he told a group of Punjabi journalists in Toronto while the debate over gay marriage was raging in Parliament.

Tim McCaskell, a longtime gay rights activist and former member of the Toronto Board of Education who now works with recently arrived gay and HIV-positive immigrants in Toronto, says he believes Kenney’s editing of the citizenship guide reveals the minister’s own views and the views of his constituents.

McCaskell noted the tradition of opposition to gay rights in Kenney’s party. “The Federal Tories have opposed…every piece of pro gay legislation as far back as you can go, including decriminalization in 1969.”

The new information will be added to the guide when it undergoes a planned second printing later this year.

The guide replaces a 1995 document published by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien. In an interview with TVOntario’s Steve Paikin in November 2009, Kenney called the previous guide “politically correct pabulum.” Immigrants taking the citizenship test will be tested on the content of the new document starting March 15.