Canada must be a leader in response to Ugandan anti-LGBTQ+ laws 

OPINION: The lack of action is not helping Canada’s image of being a champion for human rights on the global stage

Last week, nearly a year to the day since Uganda passed its latest draconian anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, the country’s constitutional court upheld the law as valid—a move advocates worry is going to lead to violence against queer and trans people in the country. While the United States has made policy changes around Uganda in the wake of the legislation, Canada has not followed suit, staying largely in the realm of statements of “grave concern,” as the Department of Global Affairs tweeted last week. But tweets are not action, and no matter how many times Women and Gender Equality and Youth minister Marci Ien tweets that Canada is “united against hate,” that’s not going to have a meaningful impact.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act allows for a suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” to be jailed for up to 14 years, and the offence of “attempted homosexuality” is punishable by up to 10 years. The “crime” of homosexuality can mean life imprisonment, and even promoting LGBTQ+ rights can mean a 20-year jail sentence. The offence of “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes having sex while HIV-positive, is punishable by death. The concern is not only about Uganda, but that there is a contagion effect happening in the region, such as even more draconian legislation that has passed, but has not yet been signed into law in Ghana.

The U.S. has enacted a series of measures that includes restricting entry into the U.S. by those in Uganda who have been responsible for the legislation, levying sanctions against the head of the Uganda Prisons Service because of torture and other cruel and inhumane actions that have happened under his watch, ending Ugandan eligibility for certain foreign aid funds, placing business and travel advisories on the country and advocating for social safeguards in World Bank lending, which again, limits aid that the country can apply for. They have continued to provide certain humanitarian and assistance programs, mobilizing private sector capital for social development, and providing support for victims of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. For it does remain important for countries to not entirely withdraw aid because that can lead to scapegoating the queer and trans communities, and it can be argued that some of the programs that the U.S. is limiting could still do that.

Canada, meanwhile, has done none of this, even though we could certainly mirror many of these measures, including restricting entry to Canada, or levying Magnitsky Act sanctions against individuals responsible for pushing this legislation. Canada has been a leading advocate for sanctions against Russia and its allies around the invasion of Ukraine, so it would seem like this could be an easily accomplished measure which shows that there can be consequences for pushing this kind of legislation that abuses the human rights of the most vulnerable in society. (That does leave the question open as to whether we have the capacity to enforce all of these sanctions, and there are certain former national security employees who have raised this legitimate concern.) We could also go one step further and impose sanctions against the American evangelical organizations that have been promoting these kinds of laws in Africa, especially because of the contagion effect that they are contributing to. But our government hasn’t, and that silence sends its own message.


Canada could also be doing more in terms of providing funding for support for LGBTQ+ organizations on the ground in Uganda, because there are plenty of people in the country who want to stay in the country and fight for their rights, but there doesn’t seem to have been a move to do that. There have also been requests from a variety of Canadian civil society groups, led by Dignity Network Canada, for Canada to lead multinational corporations and trade organizations to speak out publicly against this legislation, or to hold the Ugandan government to account in multilateral spaces, but we haven’t seen much of that either, in spite of plenty of opportunities, particularly within the Commonwealth, where Canada has a more prominent leadership role. There are also calls for the Canadian government to create flexible visas and humanitarian programs for at-risk LGBTQ+ Ugandans and human rights defenders who may need pathways to safety, but the Canadian immigration system has had a particular problem with visas in African countries for a long time now (ask the organizers of any international conference) and that seems like an almost impossible ask because of how long-standing that particular problem has been.

That leaves support for those queer and trans people who need to flee Uganda for their safety, and the recent partnership with Rainbow Railroad will assist with this, and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in an emailed response to a query from Xtra that in response to the situation in Uganda, they recently extended the partnership to allow Rainbow Refugee to sponsor an additional 25 refugees residing in Uganda or who have fled Uganda. Additionally, they have allowed for an exemption that will allow Ugandans who received a negative decision on their refugee claim in the past year to apply for an additional risk assessment prior to a deportation order.

The lack of response from the Canadian government brings us back to why there have been calls by civil society groups for Canada to appoint a special envoy for LGBTQ+ issues, who could do the behind-the-scenes work in Global Affairs to ensure that these kinds of issues are being brought to the fore, and to coordinate the necessary response. Employment minister Randy Boissonnault told Xtra last year that he has been agitating for this position around the cabinet table and sounded positive that this would happen at the “right time,” but it hasn’t happened yet, and this government is running out of time before the next election if they want this position filled, and to have any kind of impact. The lack of action is certainly not helping Canada’s image of being a champion for human rights on the global stage—if we can’t do anything more than make statements of concern, that certainly puts into question the government’s ability to actually follow through on its commitments when they make them. 

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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