Feds shift focus to safety, one year into Canada’s 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan

Marci Ien, minister of Women and Gender Equality and Youth, says with rise in anti-trans hate, the government has the potential to “save lives” 

The federal government’s 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan just passed its first anniversary, and while the plan is intended to be evergreen and regularly updated, Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien says that the new focus on safety against the rise in hate was not where she expected to be a year ago, particularly as there are increasing protests under the banner of “parental rights,” while provincial premiers change safe-school policies to pander to that sentiment.

“How was I to know that at the end of June, I would be coming together with the then minister for public safety and the community, who were presented us this costed-out plan because the communities across the country were saying ‘we don’t feel safe, it’s Pride season, this is the money we need, and can you do this, please?’” Ien recounts in an interview with Xtra in her office on Parliament Hill. “Whoever thought that would happen?”

Ien says that one of the great things about the plan is the flexibility and ability to pivot when necessary, particularly when the community comes to her with what they need.

“These are unprecedented times, and we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, so that’s why we put together a plan that is community-led, and that is capacity-led and project-led, because the community is saying, ‘This is what we need, so can you give us this, or can we apply to get that from you?’” Ien says.

Something else that has changed since the launch of the plan is that data is now being collected where it hadn’t been before, particularly around the size and scope of queer and trans communities around the country.

“That’s how policy gets created, and that’s how we start discussions, when we have numbers that show that this is Canada, and this is who we need to create policy for,” Ien says.

One of the criticisms of the Action Plan at its launch was how little there was in it around international assistance for queer and trans communities abroad. Ien says that in her capacity as minister, she took the opportunity over the summer to travel to Kigali, Rwanda, for the Women Deliver conference.

“Maybe we should have been louder about this, but I figured we should just do the work,” Ien says. “We convened this really amazing roundtable of LGBTQ+ activists from across Africa, so Uganda was represented, Nigeria was represented, Ethiopia, Ghana—you name it. We sat down and we had a really frank discussion, and we were talking about Rainbow Railroad because some of the activists were at risk even for speaking.”

 

Ien says that the meetings weren’t posted about on social media so as not to put those activists at risk. But hearing their stories and understanding their needs gave her the sense that they see Canada as a leader on queer and trans issues, and that it has not gone unnoticed how vocal Canada has been about Uganda’s recent anti-gay laws, particularly as Uganda is seen a leader in the region.

“The world knows where Canada stands,” Ien says. “I want people to understand that there is work being done that people don’t often know about, so on the international front, that is very much the case. When I think about the prime minister and then immigration minister Sean Fraser making the announcement about Rainbow Railroad—that’s huge.”

Ien rejects the narrative that the government isn’t getting any work done on the file, and says that the work is cross-government, and that attention to queer and trans-issues are “baked-in,” which is why she enjoys having the position she does, getting to work with so many ministers.

 Ien adds that she is also frequently asked by international counterparts about the Action Plan, how it came about and how it’s working.

One year into the five-year funding envelope for the Action Plan, the portion of the funds allocated to capacity-building has nearly been entirely committed, while project funding is expected to roll out largely in the next year as applications are currently being made. Ien says that she is “squeaky” when it comes to these things, and “not shy” to ask the department of finance for more.

“It was so important for us to start and then listen to the community—what worked, what didn’t work, what were the challenges and how do we address those challenges?” Ien says. “The way that things are rolling out and continue to roll out, the community seems to be responding really well, and I’m leaving nothing off the table.”

That also includes discussions around an endowment fund for Canadian queer and trans organizations so that they become less reliant on government funding, but Ien also notes that part of capacity-building is to help groups be resilient regardless of who is in government at the time.

“That’s why I really appreciate the Action Plan, because everything is on the table—we can pivot where we need,” Ien says. “It’s about listening and taking action. It’s very grassroots-up, and I never want this to be top-down. I need the community to tell me and to tell us what it needs, and if an endowment fund is something that the community says we need to look at, then we’re going to look at it.”

When it comes to the pronoun policies that various provinces have been rolling out in the education system, Ien has a limited number of policy levers at her disposal because education is a provincial responsibility. 

“I’ve been very vocal, because I have youth in my portfolio as well,” Ien says. “I’ve been criss-crossing the country, and I’ve been talking to kids, and I’ve been talking to trans and queer kids and their families, I’ve been talking to the organizations that serve them. What is clear to me, and this is where the life-and-death statement came about is that’s what they told me. And they told me to stand, and that’s what I do. This is not just a title—this is ‘can we centre these kids?’”

Ien says that as a parent, she understands that parents want and need to know what is happening with their kids, but not at the expense of kids, especially marginalized kids.

“It’s not a small thing to tell the young people in particular whom I meet that I stand with them, and you’re going to hear that from me, and I will do all I can do,” Ien says. “If we can get to an empathetic place, then that’s where real change happens. There are those who say I haven’t done enough, but when I meet kids on the street or parents who say ‘thank you’ because I said this and my son now sees himself, or a parent who says ‘I have two non-binary kids—and this happens, where we’re sitting there in tears on the subway’—because they say how much it means. That’s what matters.”

As for specific actions that the federal government can take around these provincial policies, such as joining in court challenges, Ien says that some of it is still too hypothetical to say anything at this point.

“This is not a time to play politics, and if there’s a reason that I don’t sleep at night—it’s this,” Ien says. “These are not the people to play politics with. We have the potential to save lives. It makes a difference when young people can see themselves and use their pronouns, and just doing that saves lives. The data bears this out.”

As for the anti-trans Conservative convention policies, Ien asks why they want to “play politics” with this, and asks if anyone is sitting down with these kids and their families.

“Are you actually listening to the people that this impacts? Because I am,” Ien says. “It makes a difference. I’m learning so much. I would encourage people to do that. It’s one thing to talk about people and to politicize things—it’s another to sit with trans and queer kids to listen to what they’re saying and their life experience.”

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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