Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he hopes "decency will prevail" when it comes to Russia's anti-gay law, but that despite his concern about Canadians going to the Olympics there, a boycott is not the answer.
Baird was asked by reporters during a teleconference from Rio de Janeiro about growing calls for a boycott of the 2014 Games in Sochi.
"We want to see the athletes succeed, and obviously we're in close contact with the Canadian Olympic Committee," Baird said. "I was pleased to see the International Olympic Committee come out and seek further assurances from the Russian Federation in advance of the Games."
"We've got an important opportunity for the free world to be able to put the focus on what's happening in Russia in recent weeks and months and hopefully that can yield a change," he added.
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The foreign affairs minister has said previously that Canada is working behind the scenes to persuade Russia not to follow through with the law that was signed in June. It imposes fines for spreading information about gay choices to minors and for holding gay pride rallies.
"We are concerned obviously about Canadian athletes and other participants and spectators and attendees of the Olympics there, but we should be very clear, they're only going to be there for two to three weeks. The people of Russia will have to deal with this law 365 days a year every year," said Baird. "Let's hope that decency will prevail."
Asked about the controversy Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadians expect the government to speak up on rights issues.
"We don't throw in jail or kill people for taking part in activities between consenting adults. And we don't throw people in jail for expressing their political views," Harper said in French during a press conference in Miramichi, N.B.
"I think our position on this represents the views of Canadians, and they expect us to speak up for those rights," he said.
NDP calls for visa ban
The NDP's foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar called on Baird to do more than just speak out against the Russian law — he wants the government to "institute a visa ban for the originators of the new law in question."
Dewar also suggests in an open letter to Baird that his department identify opportunities to support LGBT activists in Russia and that Canada work with "like-minded countries to oppose homophobic and transphobic resolutions" at the United Nations.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair backed Dewar's call for the government to impose a visa ban to pressure Russia.
"We urge the Canadian government to act forcefully in support of human rights in Russia and urge civil society and human rights organizations to sign on to this initiative," Mulcair said in a statement.
"Canada's Parliament, government and civil society must unite behind the defence of human rights and work together to ensure that the games in Sochi are inclusive and respectful of the rights of LGBT athletes and spectators," he said.
Baird also talked about the controversial Russian law during an interview with Evan Solomon that will air on The National Friday night.
"This is not just a mean-spirited law, but obviously it just lacks common decency, and whenever you have intolerance and hatred it leads to discrimination and even violence, and that's what should really concern us about this," Baird said.
Baird's defence of sexual minorities' rights in other countries recently prompted an attack from a conservative women's group. REAL Women of Canada accused Baird of using taxpayers' money to promote "his own personal agenda" and attempting to set standards for laws in foreign countries.
The group objects to Baird's meetings with Russian officials and characterized his views as those of a "left-wing elitist." "These are not conservative values, and that of grassroots Canada, who, after all, pay the bulk of the taxes," the group's press release said.
"I've been called a lot of things in my 18 years in politics, and throughout the 10 cabinet jobs that I've held federally and provincially, but I've never been called a left-wing elitist," Baird said
He said the government was urging the repeal of laws that make homosexuality a criminal offence.
"We're combating violence and arguing against the death penalty simply because you're a sexual minority," he said. "I think these are issues with which the overwhelming majority of Canadians agree with us."
Baird was asked Friday during the teleconference whether his advocacy might hurt the Conservatives at the ballot box and he said he wasn't interested in commenting.
"I'll leave others to come to those determinations," he said.