News that Uganda’s parliament passed a sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ bill last week received swift political reaction in Canada, but it wasn’t fully on the official level. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made media remarks on his way into the House of Commons that day, and later tweeted his concern, but did not release an official press release, nor did the department of Global Affairs—though Minister Mélanie Joly did tweet her own condemnation. The Prime Minister’s Office rescinded the invitation for the Ugandan high commissioner to attend U.S. president Joe Biden’s speech to Parliament later that week, but that’s not strong enough of a public statement.
The Ugandan legislation calls for a suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” to be jailed for 14 years, and the offence of “attempted homosexuality” is punishable by up to 10 years. The offence of “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes having sex while HIV-positive, carries the death penalty; the “crime” of homosexuality can mean life imprisonment, and even promoting LGBTQ+ rights can mean a 20-year jail sentence.
In the face of this, reaction among opposition parties in Canada was not as pronounced. Neither Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre nor NDP leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted their own condemnations, nor did they release official statements, though Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong tweeted on behalf of his party. Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman put out her own condemnation, but most touching was former leadership candidate Scott Aitchson, who posted a thread about a friend in Uganda, and the discrimination he faces.
Even then, not every Conservative was on the same page. Just days earlier, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis tweeted a video of Liberal parliamentary secretary of foreign affairs, Rob Oliphant, questioning Ugandan MP Lucy Akello at a committee meeting, accusing Oliphant of “mansplaining” Akello on human rights. For context, Akello seconded a resolution commending former Ugandan speaker Rebecca Kadaga for “upholding Uganda’s cultural values,” meaning the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that Kagada frequently championed. Oliphant later shot back over Twitter that Genuis has offered implicit support of Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ bill.
I asked Oliphant about this incident, and he was quick to explain that this happened as part of a study on women’s reproductive rights internationally at the Commons’ foreign affairs committee (a study that Genuis was responsible for delaying for months).
“The Conservatives brought forward a witness, who is an MP from Uganda, and we were talking about women’s health and I asked if it included lesbians’ health,” Oliphant says. “She made some pointed comments and I essentially said that this is about human rights, and I said that I come at this as a person of faith, and that as a Christian, I am in favour of LGBTQ2S+ rights.”
Oliphant firmly rejects the accusation of mansplaining.
“We treat women as equals, and parliamentarians as equals, and when we disagree, we engage in difficult but polite discussion, which is what I did,” Oliphant says.
As parliamentary secretary, Oliphant has been leading the federal government’s diplomatic efforts in Africa, and he has kept a close eye on this situation in Uganda.
“With great regret, I have been following the private members bill and the fast-tracking of it through their Parliament, and was disappointed that it was passed,” Oliphant says. “We’re now in this 30-day period where President [Yoweri] Museveni has a chance to reconsider. He has a few options: he could send it back, he could sign it, he could suggest changes to it and have Parliament reconsider it—[it] is our hope that he will either refuse to sign it or send it back for reconsideration.”
Oliphant says that his fear is that what are being touted as “African values” or “Ugandan values” are really old colonial values from Victorian times, and that while other countries have progressed on these rights, the debate has become stuck in Uganda.
“I believe we have evidence that it’s the American evangelical churches, which are engaged in the debate, as well as possibly other countries using misinformation or disinformation at the same time,” Oliphant says, not naming what has widely been suspected to be Russian involvement.
“Our hope is that as a friend of Uganda, we suggest that the best way for them to be prosperous and successful is to open their doors to LGBTQ+ people and to continue to advance human rights as is happening in some other countries in Africa,” Oliphant adds.
As Uganda is a member of the Commonwealth, Oliphant says that he will be talking to other Commonwealth countries to join in Canada’s efforts, particularly African members, to approach Museveni to convince him that this is not a western issue, but important for the good of all Ugandan families. That said, the Canadian government is trying to maintain a position of do no harm.
But if what we are seeing in Uganda is the influence of American evangelical organizations or pro-Russian groups, is this an example of why Canada needs to be more engaged in foreign aid and international development? You might think, but we also need to remember that this past week, the auditor general reported that our “feminist foreign aid” policy is not being properly tracked by department officials, meaning we have no idea if we are achieving the outcomes we want. That signals a lack of attention to the file on the part of the government and the department, compounded by the fact that foreign aid funding is again being cut in this year’s budget. It’s hard to counter nefarious influence if we’re not engaged on the ground.
The fact that there hasn’t been a strong official response at this juncture supports the calls from Canadian organizations to appoint a special envoy for LGBTQ2S+ human rights, who could do the work of coordinating a proper response and engaging government departments on it. And while I suspect that a stronger response from Trudeau may come after the 30-day period is up and President Museveni has not acted against the bill, it’s not a very public show of international leadership at this point in time. Canada should be doing more, which means that we need to actually be effective with the tools at our disposal.