Canadians protest Russia's anti-gay law with letters to government

When Russia passed its anti-gay law last summer, Canadians quietly protested the move by sending a flurry of letters to government officials, as revealed in documents obtained by CBC News.

Letters say the 'Olympic spirit is under assault,' demand Canada pressure Russia to rescind law

The rainbow flag flies over Montreal City Hall alongside the Olympic flag. Both will remain for the duration of the Olympic Games in Sochi. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

When Russia passed its controversial law banning the spread of gay propaganda last summer, it created a wave of anxiety and outrage that spread throughout the world and onto Canadian shores, as revealed in documents obtained by CBC News.

Canadians — with our same-sex marriage laws, our pride parades and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms — condemned the Russian anti-gay laws. In an August 2013 interview, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said it is "an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence."

More recently, a Canadian institute for diversity created a cheeky video with a message that the Olympics were always a little gay, illustrating that we could have a little fun in standing up for human rights.

But Canadians' protests began much earlier and quieter — in written letters and emails sent to government officials almost as soon as the Russian law was passed.

Documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request reveal a whole swath of correspondence between concerned citizens and Minister of Sport Bal GosalThey're only a sampling, as the documents contain mostly notes to Gosal and not to representatives from other relevant departments.

Altogether, the government responded to more than 200 emails and letters from the public, according to Foreign Affairs spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon.

The emails revolved around themes of shared humanity and anger against purported hatred and discrimination. 

"I cannot stand quiet about this issue," said one Aug. 7, 2013, email. "I am not gay, however I am a human being."

It attached Stephen Fry's open letter to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, comparing the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Games, and the anti-gay laws with Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews. 

The safety of Canadian athletes was also a concern. 

Another email referred to retired hockey star Sarah Vaillancourt, about how it was possible for her to be arrested and detained for two weeks before being sent back to Canada. 

"Rest assured she is not the only LGBT member of the Canadian Olympic Team," the email read.

Passionate pleas to government

Soon after the anti-gay law was passed, Russian officials did tell the International Olympic Committee that it would not discriminate against homosexuals during the Games. 

But many Canadians demanded an Olympic boycott.

"Will the government of Canada stand up for what it says it believes in, human rights and equality. Will the Canadian government stand up for human rights and boycott the 2014 Olympic games in Russia?" asked one of the earliest emails, dated July 9.

"The Olympic spirit is under assault. If Canada will not boycott, it needs to lead the world with a strong substantive message," read another.

Others determined a boycott would deprive Canadian athletes their chance to compete, saying "athletes are being used to promote other political agendas."

One person instead called for the cancellation of purchases from Russia and "other anti-gay countries" which might supply equipment to the 2015 Pan Am Games to be held in Toronto. (Gosal's office referred that person to Ontario Minister of Sport Michael Chan).

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also called on Canada to pressure Russia into rescinding its legislation, as well as comply with international human rights law that requires nations to ensure equal rights for all citizens. 

Or at the very least, to take the opportunity at the Sochi Games "to publicly express support for LGBTQ people."

Not just human rights, but Canadian values

And, mostly, the emails invoked a sense of patriotism, that action on the part of government would not only signal a respect for human rights but reflect instinctive Canadian values. 

"I am a proud Canadian," opened one email. "I love my Edmonton Oilers and having a few cold ones while camping with my friends — just like millions of my countrymen.

"Our athletes aren't just representing our country — they are representing what our country stands for and believes in," it continued. Competing in Russia means athletes are "asked to compete in a place that is contrary to those values."

Another said that as one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, "and as a country that guarantees the rights of its LGBTQ citizens, Canada must stand clearly against the recent homophobic attacks in Russia."

For their efforts, the email writers received responses from Gosal, slightly personalized but largely containing carefully constructed talking points and no promises, according to the documents. 

They acknowledged the "development in Russia is extremely troubling" and that the government raised its concerns directly with Russian authorities. But in addressing demands for official action and a possible boycott, the minister of sport reminded people the Canadian Olympic Committee — a national, private, not-for-profit organization — is the one responsible for all aspects of Canada's involvement. 

As the world's athletes descended on Sochi, slipped inside the Olympic bubble and kicked into competition mode, thoughts of discrimination and human rights abuses largely fell by the wayside. 

But this week, videos surfaced of Russian security officers attacking members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot with whips as they attempted to protest, right in front of the Sochi 2014 sign in the Olympic Village. 

The IOC said it was "very unsettling," but had also said "venues are not the places to have demonstrations." 

Canadians are still left to wonder whether the pen really is mightier than the sword.


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