NDP wants tougher stance on Russia, but no Sochi boycott

The Opposition New Democrats are calling on the Canadian government to make clear its position on Russia's recent anti-gay laws, in light of growing calls by activists to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Anti-gay laws in 2014 Winter Olympics host country concern athletes

Gay rights activists carry rainbow flags as they march during a May Day rally in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some activists are calling for Canada to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over Russia's anti-gay laws. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

The Opposition New Democrats are calling on the Canadian government to make clear its position on Russia's recent anti-gay laws, in light of growing calls by activists to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"I don't think [Foreign Affairs Minister John] Baird has been strong enough in his concern or been declarative enough of the government's position against the laws that have recently been passed in Russia," said Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, in a telephone interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

"We haven't heard anything directly from Minister Baird," Dewar said.

Baird is on a seven-country visit of South America and was not available for an interview with CBC News.

In a written statement to CBC News, Rick Roth, Baird's press secretary, said "this latest development in Russia is extremely troubling and Canada has raised its concerns directly with Russian authorities."

"Canada follows the human rights situation in Russia closely and the promotion of Canadian values has and will continue to feature prominently in our ongoing dialogue," Roth said.

It is unclear whether Canada has raised its concerns since Russia passed another law in late June, making it illegal to spread "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations" to minors, under threat of steep fines.

To boycott or not to boycott?

While the Official Opposition would like Baird to be more forthcoming about Canada's position, just as he has done in the past when speaking up against anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria, it is not in favour of boycotting the Olympics at this time.

"Now is not the time for talk of boycott," Dewar told CBC News.

Dewar said the foreign affairs minister should make the Canadian government's position clear and then engage with Russia to make sure that everyone is safe.

CBC News asked Baird's office whether he would support a boycott of the Games, but his office said the decision did not rest with Baird.

"The decision whether or not to participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics would rest with the Canadian Olympic Committee," Roth said in an email.

Minister of State for Sports Bal Gosal was also not available for an interview.

In a written statement to CBC News, Gosal said that it was important to note that "the Olympic and Paralympic Games are governed by a charter and are a competition between athletes in individual or team events, not between countries."

"National Olympic committees, such as the Canadian Olympic Committee, have exclusive authority over the representation of their respective countries at the Olympic Games," Gosal said.

Dimitri Soudas, the executive director of communications for the COC, was not available for an interview Tuesday.

His office sent a written statement attributable to Soudas saying that "playing sports is a human right" and that "we oppose discrimination of any kind."

"The International Olympic Committee has stated it continues to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media and it has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," the statement said.

The safety of Olympians

A spokesman for the RCMP said that part of its role with respect to security at the 2014 Winter Olympics will be to hold "a security briefing with athletes and team members on security precautions."

"In its security briefing, the RCMP will flag safety and security issues … the Sochi security briefing will include a briefing on the recently signed law giving authorities the rights to detain tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being homosexual or pro gay," Cpl. Laurence Trottier told CBC News in a written statement.

The RCMP will also brief athletes on other safety and security issues, including:

  • Maintaining a high level of personal security awareness at all times and in all places.
  • Wearing proper accreditation at all times while inside the athletes village and venues.
  • Co-operating with local authorities and exercising caution in crowded areas.
  • Ensuring personal belongings, including passports and other travel documents, are secure at all times.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The Current on Tuesday, Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater from New Zealand and one of a few openly gay Olympic athletes, said he does not support a call to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, but he has some reservations about Russia's anti-gay laws.

Skjellerup said the IOC has told athletes they will be exempt from this new law, but "I don't know exactly how that's going to work."

"I foretrust in the IOC that my security is going to be granted … but in terms of leaving the [Olympic] village, if that is going to happen, you never know."

Skjellerup also expressed concern about wearing a gay-pride pin that the IOC approved in a previous Olympics.

"I would like to think that because the IOC approved it in a previous Olympic, it's not something that is going to get me into trouble whether I'm in or out of the village during Sochi," Skjellerup said.

Canada-Russia relations

There has been a recent series of diplomatic ripples in Canada's relationship with Russia

In mid-June, during the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Stephen Harper found himself at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia's support for the Syrian regime.

Months earlier, Baird denounced Russia's decision to join China in vetoing a Western-backed UN resolution threatening non-military sanctions against Syria.

Last year, Canada expelled several Russian diplomats amid spying allegations.