Gay rights stance supported by Canadians, Baird says

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is brushing off criticism of his government's defence of sexual minorities' rights in foreign countries, saying the vast majority of Canadians support the government's stance.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says political and religious freedoms, rights of women and sexual minorities are Canadian values that the government promotes around the world. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is brushing off criticism of Ottawa's defence of sexual minorities' rights in other countries, saying the vast majority of Canadians support the government's stance despite claims from a conservative women's group to the contrary.

"We have put a great deal of emphasis on promoting Canadian values," Baird told The Canadian Press from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday.

"With respect to sexual minorities, we've focused on three things. One, against the criminalization of sexual minorities, two, against violence, and three, against the death penalty — and I think 99.9 per cent of Canadians support us on those three issues."

Baird also said that political and religious freedoms and women's rights' are values the government promotes around the world.

"I don't know anyone in my party that supports the death penalty for sexual minorities. Not a single person," Baird said, referring to reports that Uganda has considered the death penalty for homosexual relations.

His comments come in response to an attack from a conservative women's group, which accused Baird of using taxpayers' money to promote "his own personal agenda" and attempting to set standards for laws in foreign countries.

REAL Women of Canada took issue with Baird's comments in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, in which he said the Harper government had worked behind the scenes to persuade Russia not to follow through with a controversial anti-gay law.

Baird told The Canadian Press on Aug. 1 that he is deeply concerned that the new Russian law will be enforced during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and called the law an "incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence."

The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, bans "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" and imposes fines on those holding gay pride rallies.

NDP urges Baird to continue to speak out

In a letter to Baird that was provided to The Canadian Press, NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar called on him to continue speaking out against the homophobic legislation and attacks on LGBT Russians, in addition to determining ways to support LGBT activists in Russia and "to institute a visa ban for the originators of the law in question."

"Passage of this legislation has led to mistreatment and persecution of LGBT individuals throughout Russia based solely upon their desire to express themselves and to associate with like-minded individuals and organizations," Dewar said in the letter.

"Due to the harmful effects this law is having on its own citizens, Russian civil society organizations have rallied to this cause. They have been joined in their efforts by their concerned Canadian counterparts in expressing their discontent over the treatment of LGBT peoples and have voiced their view that this conduct is contrary to our collective Canadian value of respect for human rights."

The vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, Gwendolyn Landolt, said in a statement on the group's website on Wednesday that Baird's actions are "highly offensive" to conservative taxpayers.

"Just who does John Baird think he is?" asks Landolt.

She said while Baird argues that "homosexual rights are a 'Canadian value,' this applies only to himself and his fellow activists and the left-wing elitists," and that these are "not conservative values and that of grassroots Canadians."

Baird is currently on a 13-day trip to Latin America, meeting with political and business leaders.

REAL Women met with Baird staffers

Representatives from REAL Women of Canada met with two members of Baird's staff Wednesday about the group's criticism of Baird. 

Asked if Baird's office was offended by remarks accusing the cabinet minister of abusing his office or furthering "his own perspective on homosexuality," Diane Watts, a researcher for REAL Women, described the response as "neutral." She added that a representative from the Office for Religious Freedom, a newly formed body that answers to the foreign affairs department, was also present to explain how the government is actively defending religious minorities in other countries.

Watts said both parties stressed their concern for human rights, and added that REAL Women is opposed to violence, perhaps distancing the group from remarks made Wednesday by Landolt to CBC News suggesting Canada has no place judging Uganda's reported attempts to introduce the death penalty for homosexual activity.

"We were very pleased to explain our position, and I think everyone is so inundated with protecting the language of LBGTs that no one thinks of protecting the concerns of the Canadian family. It was an opportunity to bring that on the table, that obviously wasn't being brought on the table,'' she said.

Watts added that REAL Women, which she says has 50,000 members,  was "quite happy" with the tone of the meeting.

Asked about the meeting, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs confirmed the meeting took place but declined to discuss the content.

"[We] were pleased to discuss our principled position on opposing the criminalization of homosexuality, and standing against the suppression of fundamental freedoms around the world," said Rick Roth.

With files from Leslie MacKinnon