By Dale Smith
The Commons subcommittee on international human rights – part of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development – heard from the Pride Uganda Alliance International on the plight on queers in Uganda.
The two Ugandan witnesses, who were known only as “Witness 1” and “Witness 2” in order to protect their identities, in a hearing that was not broadcast by video, talked about how the situation has become much worse for queers in that country. The anti-homosexuality bill is still working its way through the Ugandan parliament, despite international pressure, and the recent publication of the country’s “top 100” homosexuals has driven people into hiding as mob justice takes hold among the public.
“I would suggest that the committee members in general were horrified,” says subcommittee NDP member Wayne Marston. Not only did the stories match what has been written about, but they also told about other difficulties that queer Ugandans face.
“The issue that was quite shocking was … that there’s also extortion going on,” says Liberal MP Mario Silva. “To protect their identities they have to pay people who are basically harassing them for money, and so that they’re not exposed to the public officials so that they won’t be arrested. With this new law that’s been introduced about the death penalty, it would be horrific.
“They know their lives are in danger, and it is quite appalling.”
PUAI first contacted the subcommittee chair, Conservative MP Scott Reid, over the summer, and Reid passed their request to the committee.
“When the committee received it, the members decide what they’re going to look at, and they decided this was worth taking a look at,” Reid says. The committee agreed to study the issue of sexual minorities in Uganda.
PUAI came to the committee with a specific proposal for how they could help – because of the urgency of the situation for so many queer Ugandans, could the committee impress upon the Canadian government to grant group resettlement for these Ugandans as refugees as opposed to going through each claimant on a case-by-case basis?
“We’re very favourable to that suggestion,” Silva says.
Marston suggested that as a follow-up meeting, they invite the PUAI witnesses back along with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officials to help determine ways that the process can be streamlined and made more accessible for queer Ugandans fleeing persecution.
“Some of the things that were being asked of us, we didn’t have the capacity to actually answer at the time,” Marston says. “For example, they wanted blanket visas for unknown people. Is that a legal possibility? I have my doubts about that. One gentleman offered to go to a neighbouring country and bring the folks there, and set up things – and that’s fine. But I don’t think you’ll ever see somebody give you a blank file to fill in.”
Because PUAI is a community organisation without any resources, they would require additional assistance to help resettle these refugees. The one witness says that he knows of two hundred people who need immediate assistance in fleeing the country, but he has already lost contact with many of them.
He also added that so far, about seventy queer Ugandans have made it to Canada in safety. He personally had to bribe his way out of detention and flee to neighbouring Kenya, where the refugee claimant process is very intimidating. Having experienced the process, he hopes for the group resettlement determination, especially as he knows of people who have been turned away because they didn’t have the proper paperwork.
He also noted that the influence of American evangelical Christian groups has been widely felt as they try to use the proposed Ugandan law as a “model” for other countries to follow when it comes to legislating against homosexuality.
The mention of these evangelical groups prompted Conservative MP Dave Sweet to try assure the witnesses that not all Christians condone the acts of hate even though “we might not agree with the lifestyle choice,” while Reid said that he felt his parents, who were evangelical missionaries, would be horrified by what has transpired in Uganda.
Silva pointed out during the hearing that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has publicly supported queer Iranian refugees, and he hopes that the same will extend to Ugandans.
“I want to work in partnership to see if we can get something out,” Silva says. “I don’t think this is a partisan issue, or want to be attacking a political party philosophy on one issue or another. I think we can get a consensus on this, and either move a motion or see what the minister can do directly. I’d rather work cooperatively to get something down as opposed to scoring some political shots that won’t get us anywhere.”
Silva says that he also hopes more Canadians will become engaged with the issue.
“We need more action from the [queer] community as well about this issue of Uganda – this is an important issue that I’d like to see the community focus on.”