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Canada's first out lesbian federal minister on why Pride feels different this year

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For Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge, Pride month feels different this year. It's a sentiment that's being expressed by many in the LGBTQ2S+ community in the wake of a rise in hate and attempts to "push back" on the progress made, but she sees it as an opportunity for Canadian politicians, high-profile athletes and others with platforms to "stand up."

"There is a difference this year… We need to talk about it," St-Onge said. "I think it's more important now than ever, that people that are in the public space, that we stand up and stand against what we're seeing right now… Whatever athletes, or sports organizations or people with a public voice, we need to use that space to bring positivity and support to the queer and trans community."

St-Onge made history in 2021, becoming Canada's first openly lesbian member of the federal cabinet. In an exclusive sit-down interview with CTV News, the minister spoke about her experience in office so far, what's worrying her about the current climate, and where she sees ways for the federal government to do more.

The minister told CTV News that when she started out in her current role, after a nail-biter race to win her riding of Brome-Missisquoi, Que., she felt some hesitancy about being typecast or perceived by her sexual orientation, but now she's feeling more of a responsibility to speak out.

"I think it's time for people who do believe in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, who do believe that we have the greatest country in the world… I think it's time for us to stand up and take a stand and be strong," she said, suggesting the LGBTQ2S+ community and allies need to be ready to take steps to shore up Canada’s protections.

Coming from her position as minister of sport, St-Onge would also like to see Canadian sports organizations use their platforms for good.

In recent months, high-profile athletes come under scrutiny for anti-LGBTQ2S+ comments, and the NHL has said it would re-evaluate its Pride nights after several players refused to wear Pride-themed jerseys this past season. 

"It's something that I would have never thought that we'd see," St-Onge said of the recent headlines, "Because a year ago or two years ago, it wasn't even being questioned."

She said the sports organizations and the athletes that are "making a lot of money and that have the privilege of having a voice should use it for positive reinforcement," and not to try to roll back rights.

St-Onge said she has conversations regularly, including with Canada's national teams about how to make sport more inclusive. It’s a challenge that's seen the minister face some tough questions as parliamentarians have dug into the issue of safe sport and certain organizations' serious mishandling of allegations of misconduct and abuse.

After being sworn in, St-Onge said she wanted to bring a new perspective to government decision-making. It’s a goal she said she thinks has been achieved by bringing her unique life experiences to policy conversations at the cabinet table and liaising with minister Marci Ien who leads on LGBTQ2S+ files, as well as her fellow queer cabinet, caucus, and parliamentary colleagues.

And, while St-Onge looks positively at the government's record and work on LGBTQ2S+ files, she identifies the need for legislation to better protect people online as one main outstanding area where she thinks the Liberals need to do more to protect this community and others.

The government has already committed to tabling online harms or "only safety" legislation. After extensive consultations and reworking, the bill meant to ensure behaviour that is not acceptable in reality is not permitted online, is expected to be coming to the House of Commons in the fall. 

While she has experienced some of the online vitriol herself, what is "preoccupying" her is thinking about the young people who are coming out or questioning their identities being exposed to attacks and harmful messaging online.

St-Onge attributes the uptick in hate directed towards minority groups to "a push from extremist groups" trying to "regress" the freedoms and protections that decades of advocates had fought for, as well as foreign governments trying to "attack countries like ours that have better freedoms. "

Last fall, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly summoned Russia’s ambassador over anti-LGBTQ2S social media posts, including one directed at St-Onge.

"We need to be aware of that, we need to acknowledge that this is happening… And we need to keep on moving our policies and legislation forward," St-Onge said. "There is something that's happening and it's hard to explain, but everybody is feeling it and everybody is seeing it."

Going forward, St-Onge is hoping to see more members of the LGBTQ2S+ community get involved in politics, and in the interim she's calling on all political parties to show up at Pride events this season, something so far Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been non-committal on.

Last weekend he told reporters asking about his Pride plans that he would "be joining with all Canadians to celebrate the fact that gays and lesbians have the freedom in this country to live their lives, and raise their families in peace, in safety, and in acceptance,” but would let them know how he’ll be doing that celebrating, once his schedule is set.

"It's time that all of us in the House of Commons, that we commit to protecting our freedoms and rights and the rights of the queer and trans community. It's when things are hard and when people are trying to push back on the progress that we've made, that we need to be united and be strong, and say that as political leaders, we are going to protect our laws, and we're going to protect communities," St-Onge said. 

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