John Baird, now Canada’s Foreign Minister,last made news a couple of years ago when his cat died. The cat was named Thatcher, after an object of Baird’s admiration, and he sent friends a text message reading, “Thatcher is dead.” As word raced through Canada’s Tory government, mourning spread, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepared a message of condolence to the British people. It took some time for Buckingham Palace to confirm that the Iron Lady was still alive, though rusting. Harper’s spokesman concluded, “If the cat wasn’t dead, I’d have killed it by now.”
Baird made news today as well, in a more congenial way, by an act of homage to another tough woman, Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s initiative of US support for LGBT people’s human rights, announced last month, has become a model for other politicians striving to make a mark. In a speech in London, Baird therefore took his shot at the headlines, and outlined two priorities for Canadian foreign policy: LGBT rights and religious freedom.
What’s striking about Baird’s mimicry, though, is how generally appalling his speech is, once you get beyond the gay-specific sections. He targets the developing world — Uganda is, as is ordinary these days, his preferred negative example. But his language is that of an increasingly illiberal interventionism, driven by the need to reshape other societies, and economies, in a pliable and useful image. LGBT rights advocates should not be happy to find their cause mixed in with this repressive agenda.
Let’s see. Seething just beneath the surface of the speech, there’s neoliberalism:
The support for free markets and open societies will be the defining struggle of the coming decades – the United Kingdom and Canada have been partners in this great endeavour before; we are partners now, and we will be partners in the future in our common cause.
There’s state feminism, Tory style, with a nod to his late cat:
We in Canada, and in Britain, know well the Queen’s leadership and both our countries benefit from the full participation of women in all aspects of society. I think of leaders like Baroness Thatcher.
Thatcher (femme, not feline) at least fought for her own rights, but in other countries, passive women force us to go out and bomb things on their behalf:
I am particularly proud of the role Canada has played – in concert with our NATO allies and Afghan civil society – in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The women lucky enough to have survived NATO’s help, though, have an exciting time ahead of them: “The young Afghan girls that go to school today in Kandahar and Kabul will grow up and learn about the political tenacity of Margaret Thatcher.” The prospect of a whole generation of Afghan females, unveiled and pompadoured, proclaiming that “There is no such thing as society” must strike terror into Taliban hearts.
And, of course, there’s a blissful amnesia about the past:
Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. In some countries, these laws are unenforced hang-overs from an earlier era; in others, they are actively implemented. The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.
How you “enforce” a “hangover” is less than clear; but never mind that — you’d think these countries picked up these laws during a drunken binge, instead of during the nightmare of colonialism. That “c” word is unspeakable for Baird, himself the scion of a settler colony, as it implies a common responsibility for that old oppression’s effects. And such commonality in turn seems incompatible with the Commonwealth. (Meanwhile, elevating human rights as “the fundamental Commonwealth value” may be rhetorically useful, but ignores where the Commonwealth came from.)
To the contrary. Colonization, though we can’t actually call it by name, was the source of all the good stuff:
Voluntary associations like the 54-nation Commonwealth can and must be propelled forward as an agent for democracy, rule of law, human rights and development. That reflects the true value of the British democracy that has spanned the continents and shaped the world.
There’s a blithe confusion about all those funny little countries in Africa, which are hard to tell apart:
However, there are slivers of light. Rwanda and South Africa have been leaders in protecting and promoting the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians. Slivers of light.
Rwanda? Who told him that?
There’s a vision of human rights that deprives victims of both agency and voice:
As citizens of a global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge the aggressor, and to promote and protect human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad.
Finally, there is his fixed conviction that injustice and oppression happen somewhere other than at home.
[A] priority to me as Foreign Minister… is, promoting and protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of people around the world. It is something we often take for granted in our pluralistic societies, something we often overlook. But the vivid images of suffering and repression beam through our television sets, and are plastered in our newspapers.
I am not sure where that “plastered” comes from. But you can compare this to Clinton’s comment in her Geneva speech last month:
I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. … Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.
It’s unusual to accuse a Canadian of lacking humility as against an American; but there you are.
A scandal arose in Canada this week over an amendment to airline security regulations that the government had enacted quietly last July. The new rules read:
An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if
(a) the passenger presents a piece of photo identification and does not resemble the photograph;
(b) the passenger does not appear to be the age indicated by the date of birth on the identification he or she presents;
(c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents; or
(d) the passenger presents more than one form of identification and there is a major discrepancy between those forms of identification. [Emphasis added]
Item c) would seem to ban transgender people who haven’t changed their identity papers from flying. Activist Mercedes Allen explains more:
Most Canadian provinces require evidence of genital reconstruction surgery before allowing the change of gender markers on foundational documents. Standards of care call for a minimum of one year living as one’s identified gender before the required procedure can occur (two years in some provinces, including Ontario). This is further complicated by the fact that some provinces have removed coverage for this surgery from their health coverage, so some individuals can be trapped indefinitely with incongruent gender markers on their identification.
In fact, there have been no reports of trans people denied air travel because of the ban. The transport Minister’s spokesman claims that “Any passenger whose physical appearance does not correspond to their identification can continue to board a plane by supplying a letter from a health-care professional explaining the discrepancy” — though the regulations are far from clear on this.
The deeper problem is that Canada treats the legal identity of certain people as a medical problem, and demands a medical solution. Recognizing gender identity should not depend on genital surgery, anymore than it should (as in Sweden) depend on sterilization. Requiring that opens the door not only to discrimination, but to physical abuse.
For a loud defender of religious freedom, John Baird seems deaf to the old verse — it’s Luke 6:42 — that asks, “How can you say to your brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in your eye, when you yourself behold not the beam that is in your own eye?” And, equally, he appears oblivious to how human rights activists must be aware of history, including history’s curious susceptibility to irony.
P.S. A petition against the travel regulation is here.