Culture  A church united?

The Daily speaks with NDP MP Bill Siksay about Canada’s religious landscape

Bill Siksay is the first openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to the Canadian parliament. Originally from Oshawa, Ontario, Siksay studied to be ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada, during which time he came out as gay. His partner, Brian Burke, is the minister of Trinity United Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Siksay currently serves as the critic for Ethics, Access to Information and Privacy, and LGBT issues in the NDP’s shadow cabinet.

The McGill Daily: You came out as gay during your ordination process of becoming a minister with the United Church of Canada. Did the fact that you came out play a significant role in your never being ordained?
Bill Siksay: It’s an interesting question. I was one of the first people to come out in the process toward ordination when the United Church was debating that issue back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The church had already begun a study of human sexuality in general, but a number of us came out in 1980 and said that we wanted to be considered for ordination and that we were gay and lesbian. I think it made the process more difficult, there’s no doubt about that. The church at that moment hadn’t re-examined its policy on ordaining gay and lesbian people, and was in the process of doing that. But it’s hard for me to say that I wasn’t ordained because of the policy. There’s no doubt that the policy was a barrier at the time, and that some of the church people I had to deal with weren’t prepared to move forward with my candidacy, but I think if I had persevered, ordination would have been possible eventually.

MD: The United Church has traditionally been seen as politically left-leaning, supporting issues such as universal health care when it was an ideologically divisive issue in Canada. Do you think that the United Church still has a strong voice on the political stage, or has it diminished in the last decade or so?
BS: Certainly the United Church isn’t as prominent as it once was in terms of the number of Canadians who have direct affiliation with it, but I still think the church can and does exert influence. The church seeks to let politicians know its concerns on matters such as refugee policy and economic policy, and I think the United Church played a positive role in the debate on gay and lesbian marriage as well.

MD: Why doesn’t the church command the same type of allegiance as it once did?
BS: The religious landscape of the country has changed. Not as many people claim affiliation to the United Church, the size of other denominations and religious groups has increased, and many people no longer claim affiliation to any religion. While this changing landscape has changed the numbers within the United Church, the church still sees a clear role for itself in influencing social policy in Canada, and I think it stills exerts this influence.

MD: Is the United Church more prone to losing members of its congregation than other denominations?
BS: No, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the conservative denominations are growing at the expense of other denominations. The proportion of Christians in Canada is just different than it was decades ago, as is those of other religious groups and the proportion of those who claim no affiliation.

MD: You’re the first openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to the Canadian parliament. Had Canada’s mood concerning gay rights changed, or did you face a lot of hostility during and immediately after the elections?
BS: I think it had already shifted. The folks of Burnaby-Douglas had worked out that issue years before when Sven Robinson, who represented the riding before me, came out in 1988. I think they saw that a gay person made a reasonable representative, if not a great representative, for the community, and in that respect I was very lucky. I think the fact that I was the first non-incumbent gay to win was significant, because it’s still hard for openly gay and lesbian folks to win nominations and then to win election. Since my election, we’ve had a couple of others [gay candidates] win – Réal Ménard and Rob Oliphant were both out before they were elected to the house. However, there still exist challenges around being elected when you’re out.

MD: Does religion in Canada make the political landscape more difficult to traverse for gay politicians?
BS: I don’t think the objection to gay and lesbian people’s full participation in society is entirely religiously motivated; people who hold that opinion come to it from a number of different directions, not just religious concerns. Many folks who you might consider to be from a more conservative religious tradition don’t discriminate on that basis when it comes to judging the abilities or the suitability of an elected official.

MD: You’re currently the critic for LGBT issues in the NDP’s shadow cabinet, and you recently introduced Bill C-389. What is the bill, and what’s its importance?
BS: Bill C-389 aims to change the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination, because folks saw that if these changes were established other things could flow from that. The bill’s second priority is to change Criminal Code provisions on hate crimes and sentencing to offer new possibilities of dealing with, for instance, transfolkic violence. Originally, they were two separate bills – I introduced the Human Rights Act changes first. Unfortunately, getting priority in the private members debates in parliament is done by lottery, and last parliament my number was pretty low, and the bill wasn’t called. This time I was higher on the list and my turn came up. Given the length of time we waited, we decided that we should probably combine the two issues, so Bill C-389 contains changes to both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.

MD: Have you received support from the United Church of Canada on LGBT issues such as this bill?
BS: Yes, the United Church has endorsed the bill. The church has been very supportive of transgendered and transsexual members; the place where I first met transfolk was in the congregation that I’ve been part of in the church. For me, that possibility of knowing and understanding some of the life experiences of transpeople came about as a result of my participation in the church.

MD: Are there any transgendered ministers within the United Church?
BS: I don’t know off the top of my head, but it’s entirely possible.

MD: Bill C-389 is encountering stiff opposition from the religious right. Most notably perhaps is Charles McVety, who claims that the bill will allow adult men to be in intimate situations with young girls, such as public showers, on the pretext that they self-identify as females. Are these types of concerns valid?
BS: No, his critique of the bill is completely unfounded. This bill does nothing to change the standards for appropriate behavior in washrooms or gendered spaces. It does nothing to change the criminal code, so voyeurism, exhibitionism, harassment, or any of those types of things will still be illegal the day after the bill is passed and signed into law. I think it’s completely without foundation and intended to be a scare tactic.

MD: Do you think that this bill stands a good chance of making it through the house?
BS: Yeah, I do. I think that the opposition to it is limited – it was non-existent until a couple of weeks ago when R.E.A.L. Women, Mr. McVety, and a few other organizations started to notice it and campaign against it. What’s interesting is that we’ve had strong support from the Liberal Party in the house, and from the Bloc Quebecois. Their members supported it in speeches at the second reading, and their members also voted for it at the committee stage. Of the five Conservatives voting on the standing committee, three of them voted in favour of the bill going back to the house without changes, which was the first indication some Conservatives may indeed support the bill. This makes me feel some optimism that this bill may actually make it through the house, and not one that just results in a solid opposition versus government vote in the house.

—Compiled by Lyndon Entwistle