Nova Scotia

Groups call on Canada to make it easier for transgender Americans seeking asylum

The federal government says LGBTQ Americans can already claim asylum in this country, but advocates say more support is needed.

Parliamentary petition a 'powerful call to action,' says advocate

People, obsured from the waist up, are seen walking across a crosswalk that is painted with the colours of the transgender flag.
The painted crossings represent symbols of human rights and gender diversity. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

A Nova Scotia organization that resettles LGBTQ refugees is adding its voice to calls for the federal government to make it easier for transgender and non-binary Americans to seek asylum in Canada.

This comes amid a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation that was recently passed in the United States, including Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, Alabama's ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth and Tennessee's new anti-drag law, which prohibits drag performances in front of children.

"We're seeing a big push against access to medical care for children, for adults. Some states [are] even going as far as penalizing medical providers for giving access to this gender-affirming care, so ... things are getting worse," Rhiannon Makohoniuk, the executive director of the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia, told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia.

The situation prompted a parliamentary petition that has more than 132,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

But the federal government says LGBTQ Americans who face persecution can already claim asylum in this country. 

In an emailed statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said LGBTQ people around the world, including Americans, can claim asylum through two different refugee streams.

In the wake of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills sweeping the United States, more than 130,000 Canadians have now signed a petition asking the federal government to make it easier for Americans to claim refugee status in Canada. The Executive Director of the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia weighs in.

An individual must be referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so they can be brought to Canada, which is based on vulnerability, or if the person seeking asylum is already in Canada, the claim will be assessed at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 

"Each claim is decided individually on its own merits based on the evidence and arguments presented, and in accordance with Canada's immigration laws," Stuart Isherwood, a spokesperson with the department, said in the statement.

"In making its decisions, the [Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada] takes into account whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, including 2SLGBTQI+."

Still, Makohoniuk said there can be barriers when Americans seek asylum in Canada.

The first, she said, is the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which is geared toward asylum seekers coming from outside the two countries.

"This is an agreement that basically says the U.S. and Canada are both safe countries for people to claim refugee asylum in and so this idea that the U.S. is a safe country is inherently built in," Makohoniuk said.

Another issue is the argument that asylum should be the last resort, she said.

"In the eyes of the Canadian government, people should be exploring options like resettling within their own country before moving to another country and claiming asylum," she said.

Makohoniuk admitted there has been confusion around who can claim asylum, but the spirit of the petition is that people from the United States, and the United Kingdom, should have equitable access.

"All 2LGBTQIA+ people deserve to be safe, welcome and included wherever they are," she said. "In an ideal world, people are accepted for who they are, where they are, and there's free movement, and I think that that should be our goal."

A growing movement of LGBTQ groups and supporters are calling on the federal government to make it easier for transgender and non-binary Americans to seek asylum in Canada. Host Jeff Douglas spoke with Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a global not-for-profit organization that helps LGTBQ+ people facing persecution, about why that is.

Kimahli Powell, the executive director of the global non-profit Rainbow Railroad, said the petition is a "powerful call to action" that puts a spotlight on the plight of LGBTQ people.

"The intent is to reinforce that Canada is a welcoming place and that people from around the world should be able to exercise the right to claim asylum, if they need to from all countries and circumstances," Powell told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax.

Powell said the petition highlights that Canada needs to do more, including offering more tools and programs for asylum seekers.

A man smiles at the camera.
Kimahli Powell is the executive director of the Rainbow Railroad. (CBC)

The Rainbow Railroad has also been working to form a partnership with the government, he said, so the group can eventually become an additional referring partner for those seeking asylum, alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The idea of a partnership is that when spikes happen, when there are requests for help happening, the government has a trusted partner — an NGO that is based in Canada, supported by Canadians — to help people resettle in the country," Powell said. 

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia and Mainstreet Halifax

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