There are many things that I don't like about Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird as a politician, but he's both right and courageous in opposing the persecution of sexual minorities in Russia, Uganda and elsewhere.
I don't like how Baird provides non-answers to questions in the House of Commons, preferring instead to challenge the integrity and motives of his questioners. For example, when asked by other members of Parliament if Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan turned Taliban prisoners over to be tortured, Baird -- and other cabinet ministers -- accused questioners of not caring about the welfare of Canadian troops in that country.
But it is a much nobler Baird who has stood firmly and condemned attacks on sexual minorities despite criticism from his own Conservative base. He has confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government passed a law that bans "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," essentially making it illegal to support gay rights in public.
He has been vocally critical of the Ugandan government's proposed legislation that would allow the execution of people who have consensual homosexual sex and the imprisonment of anyone who doesn't report friends and family who are gay. The proposed bill has now been revised to remove the death penalty but still criminalizes homosexual relations with harsh prison sentences. Nonetheless, the Canadian government has provided roughly $200,000 to local groups in Uganda to help fight the law.
Baird's actions have drawn harsh criticism from REAL Women of Canada. The socially conservative group issued a news release saying that Baird imposed his own "left-wing elitist" views on Uganda and Russia. When asked by CBC News about Uganda's attempt to punish homosexuals with the death penalty, a REAL Women spokesperson said, "It may be unwise by Western standards, but who are we to interfere in a sovereign country?" Moreover, the group characterized Baird's actions as "destructive to the conservative base in Canada and causing collateral damage to his party."
Interestingly, REAL Women has, until now, been a reliable ally, supporting the Harper government's austerity budgets and favouring its tax credits to families over a national child-care program. Last year, REAL Women was even invited to help select recipients of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Although the group has now turned against Baird, its over-the-top criticism almost guarantees him a political win. Most Canadians will see this as an intolerant attack and support Baird. Meanwhile, social conservatives may be upset but will hold their noses and continue to back Harper Conservatives. Their visceral dislike of other, more progressive parties requires it.
This article appeared on the United Church Observer blog on Thursday, August 22.
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