'Extremely strong concerns' over Russia's LGBTQ record as country bids on Arctic Winter Games

Russia could host the circumpolar Arctic Winter Games in six years, which would bring in youth from across the North to participate in the sporting event. For some, the country's record on LGBTQ rights is ringing alarm bells.

'Diversity policy is an important part of what the Arctic Winter Games are all about,' says spokesman

A Progress Pride flag is pictured.
Russia could host the circumpolar Arctic Winter Games in six years. For some, the country's record on LGBTQ rights is ringing alarm bells. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Russia could host the Arctic Winter Games in six years, which has some observers sounding the alarm over the country's treatment of LGBTQ people.

If the country's bid is finalized, youth from across the North will travel there to participate in the circumpolar sporting event. 

Chelsea Thacker, executive director of the Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife, said the prospect of bringing LGBTQ youth from around the North to Russia is "terrifying to be honest."

"Instantly I was concerned because in recent years, and from a long historical context, there has been heavy discrimination and violence against LGBTQ2S people in Russia."

The hosting of the games works on a rotation. Earlier this month, the Arctic Winter Games international committee announced Yamalo-Nenets, a region in northern Russia, is slated to host the 2026 games. 

Thacker is worried about the safety of athletes, and said they have heard these apprehensions echoed by others in the LGBTQ community.

"I can't imagine … athletes who are forced to now choose safety over something that they have as a career, or as a passion, or as something that is really important to them."

Chelsea Thacker, right, is executive director of the Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

LGBTQ rights in Russia

In 2013, Russia passed a law that banned the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations." Under this law, any event or act regarded by the authorities as an attempt to "promote homosexuality" to minors is illegal and punishable by a fine. 

The 2014 Sochi Olympic games were met with international criticism from human rights groups and advocates.

Three years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the law breached European treaty rules, but it has not been revoked.

Lisa Sundstrom, associate professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, said on a legal level, "nothing has improved" with LGBTQ rights in Russia since the 2014 Olympics. 

"Seemingly the passage of that law has also in an informal sense in society … kind of given people license to engage in homophobic verbal abuse, but also physical abuse."

Pro-gay activists hold placards asking Sochi Winter Olympic sponsors to speak out against Russia's anti-gay laws during a protest in 2014. (Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images)

Games' commitment to diversity

Ian Legaree, technical director of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, said though the Arctic Winter Games does not have any official stance on Russian federal laws, it is aware of them.

"We do consider these things very carefully moving forward, and we were reassured in the preliminary bid that this would be managed effectively within the requirements."

The Arctic Winter Games released its latest diversity policy in May. It states that the committee will "champion the emotional and physical needs and safety of all participants."

The policy says it supports creating environments where those involved feel safe regardless of language, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, etc.

"The diversity policy is an important part of what the Arctic Winter Games are all about," said Legaree.

Ian Legaree said though the Arctic Winter Games does not have an official stance on Russian federal laws, it is aware of them, and considers these things carefully in the bidding process. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

After each games the committee works with stakeholders and reviews policies, to ensure a "safe, meaningful" experience for all participants and hosting communities, Doris Landry, the committee's operations coordinator, told CBC in an email.

This year would have been the first year with a Pride House at the Arctic Winter Games, if those games, set to take place in Whitehorse, weren't cancelled due to the pandemic.

Yamalo-Nenets still needs to submit a final bid, and part of that process will be a commitment to the policies in the Arctic Winter Games' staging manual, Legaree said.

"Obviously it's important, and it's something we need to take a look at in the more formal bid that comes forward and in subsequent … conversations with them, to make sure all the full protections are in place."

In theory, if a bid doesn't meet the games' policies, the rotation could be changed, said Legaree.

Team Yukon met up for a celebration in Whitehorse on March 15, 2020, to celebrate the games that never were, due to the pandemic. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Picking the location

In March 2019, the Arctic Winter Games' International Committee scoped out Yamalo-Nenets as a location. 

Legaree was on that trip, and he said there are many interesting benefits to the location.

The northern Russian region has been participating in the Arctic Winter Games since 2004, but has never hosted.

"They've been a very consistent, participant-oriented, unit. They've come every time, they've brought competitive athletes, they've complied with all the requirements."

Legaree said the location is exciting for a number of reasons, including the fact that the games hasn't been there before.

"I think that speaks right to some of the originating philosophies of the Arctic Winter Games, bringing northern peoples together to grow and develop and learn from one another." 

Legaree said the committee is looking to work with Salekhard, a city in Yamalo-Nenets, and the region itself, but "the Russian federal government is not part of this bid."

Cross country ski trials for the 2020 Arctic Winter Games took place Dec. 15, 2019, on Mount McIntyre in Whitehorse. (Stephen Anderson-Lindsay)

'Sports in Russia are political' 

Yamalo-Nenets is an autonomous district in central northern Russia.

Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Sciences at the University of Toronto, said though federations should have important local rights, President Vladimir Putin's government has increasingly centralized control.

"I think we should be very, very wary about playing into the hands of an increasingly repressive regime ... that discriminates against LGBTQ people, that denies basic freedoms," he said. 

He also says there should be "extremely strong concerns" around Russia hosting an international sporting event.

"Sports in Russia are political. We tend to think of sports as a way of bringing people together — and that's how it should be. That is not the view of the Russian government."

Team Nunavut told CBC it would not comment or speculate on government policy, but that they are excited about the inclusion of the region in the hosting rotation.

"We look forward to learning more about their hosting plan within the formal bid process … any host jurisdiction must commit to complying with the policies of the Arctic Winter Games."

Team NWT and Team Yukon didn't provide comment by publication time. 

A Nenets woman walks on a snow-covered field in the remote Yamalo-Nenets region of northern Russia on March 8, 2018. (Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images)