Canada’s queerest Cabinet is in. Now what?

ANALYSIS: When Parliament resumes, a ban on conversion practices and millions promised in funding for LGBTQ2S+ communities will be front of mind

With official confirmation and a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, Canada officially has its queerest Cabinet in history. Now the work can begin—well, sort of. While the new ministers move into their offices and hire staff, they are also starting to familiarize themselves with their files and awaiting their mandate letters from the prime minister—which may not happen for a few weeks, if rumours are true. That could mean something of a holding pattern before we get a clear sense of the priorities for these new ministers once Parliament is summoned on Nov. 22.

Before we hear from the mandate letters—which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to making public—we can expect a few different policies and issues on the plates of our three queer ministers, based on Liberal platform promises and current events. 

Seamus O’Regan, now in the role of labour minister, will be dealing with the imposition of vaccine mandates in all federally regulated workplaces, as well as the implementation of 10 paid days of sick leave in those same federally regulated workplaces. (That comprises about 6 percent of the total workforce in the country, mostly in areas of transportation, telecommunications and banking). With some unions committing to protect their vaccine-hesitant members, this could be a sticking point for O’Regan in the months to come.

Randy Boissonnault has been assigned the role of both minister for tourism and the position of associate finance minister. The latter role was formerly called the “minister of middle class prosperity” when it was assigned to Mona Fortier in the previous Parliament, but Trudeau has decided to drop that egregiously risible title (particularly as no one—least of all Fortier—could even give a definition of “middle class” beyond its brand-value for Liberal talking points). Tourism, meanwhile, has the potential to be a very political file: Boissonnault has a tough job ahead when it comes to rebuilding a sector decimated by the pandemic. It’s also a role previously marred by queer controversy: in 2009, then-tourism minister Diane Ablonczy in Stephen Harper’s cabinet was removed from the file after she gave $400,000 to Pride Toronto and had her photo taken with drag queens when presenting the cheque, which she insisted on doing in person because she was so taken with the polished and professional application that Pride submitted.

“Having Boissonnault at that table is likely to mean that the concerns of queer and trans communities will be heard at the highest levels.”

In his role as associate finance minister, however, Boissonnault will be a voice for diversity around the table when the federal budget is decided. We saw not only dedicated funding in the last budget for LGBTQ2S+ organizations across Canada, but also the work of the LGBTQ2 Secretariat, which is finalizing its action plan now that consultations are complete. The budget also included gender-based analysis plus statements about challenges and obstacles faced by the queer and trans communities that the government would look to address as it embarks on a mandate of fostering inclusive growth. Having Boissonnault at that table as these decisions are being made is likely to mean that the concerns of queer and trans communities will be heard at the highest levels.

 

New minister Pascale St-Onge has been assigned the portfolios of both sport and the Economic Development Agency for the Regions of Quebec. St-Onge is also Canada’s first out lesbian minister. The sport file has proven a good jumping-off point for new ministers—look no further than Carla Qualtrough, who also began her ministerial career in sport and persons with disabilities (Qualtrough is legally blind, and a former bronze medallist in the 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games). She has since moved to the more challenging portfolios of public services and procurement, and then employment, workforce development and disability inclusion. As minister for sport, St-Onge will have to field questions on Canada’s participation in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing. (A boycott, however, won’t be her call as minister—that needs to be made by the Canadian Olympic Committee.) In the role of economic development minister, St-Onge will act as a voice for the rural regions in Quebec—a region where a lot of rural queer and trans voices are often missed because so much of the focus tends to be on those in urban settings.

And with a queerer Cabinet than ever before, LGBTQ2S+ issues are likely to arise as early priorities for Trudeau’s Liberals. We know that a national ban on conversion practices will be one of the earliest bills tabled once Parliament is summoned. So do activists: this week, civil society group No Conversion Canada released a call to action with more than 100 LGBTQ2S+ health care, human rights, academic, faith and labour organizations calling on the government to pass legislation as soon as possible. The problem is that it’s unlikely the bill will pass before the New Year, given there are less than four planned sitting weeks before the winter break, and it’s unlikely that the standing committees will be up and running in that time period. There remains the possibility that the government could table the bill and then try to push through a unanimous consent motion to pass it at all stages, citing that it had passed the House in the previous Parliament—but I doubt that the Conservative MPs who voted against it last time would allow such a motion through.

“With a queerer Cabinet than ever before, LGBTQ2S+ issues are likely to arise as early priorities.”

There is also the question of the $40-million commitment to queer and trans communities that the Liberals made in their platform, which they promised to flow in this fiscal year. That would either mean the funds would be included in the Supplementary Estimates that are voted on once Parliament is summoned, or as part of the upcoming fall economic update and its enabling legislation (which may or may not get passed before the winter break). The problem is that the government hasn’t stated which mechanism it will employ.

“This funding will be complementary to the $7.1 million already invested to support the work of the LGBTQ2 Secretariat and the $15 million from Budget 2021 for the new LGBTQ2 Projects Fund,” says Aidan Strickland, former spokesperson for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth, in an emailed reply. “We will be able to share more details with you when the House of Commons resumes sitting and new mandate letters are issued. We will continue to work closely with LGBTQ2 communities and all our partners as we make progress on building a consciously more inclusive Canada.”

The government has made a lot of promises to the queer and trans communities, and even though it says that LGBTQ2S+ folks are priorities, it has largely only committed to tabling bills rather than passing them within the Cabinet’s first 100 days. It’s a convenient strategy, as the House of Commons won’t be sitting for the vast majority of that time. That means LGBTQ2S+ communities will need to continue to hold this parliament’s feet to the fire if we want these bills passed expeditiously because, with a minority government, the opposition can once again slow-walk bills.

Update: November 5, 2021 12:34 pmThis story has been edited to update the title of a former spokesperson for the government.

Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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