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Pascale St-Onge making history as the first out lesbian federal cabinet minister

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While representation and diversity continue to gradually improve in federal politics, historic firsts are still happening, the latest being Pascale St-Onge’s appointment to cabinet.

She is the first out lesbian to become a federal minister, taking on the role as minister of sport and minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.

“It’s a little bit surprising, because we are in 2021,” St-Onge told CTVNews.ca in an interview on Wednesday, when asked what she thought when she realized this notable milestone in LGBTQ2S+ representation had been reached.

Representing Brome-Missisquoi, Que. after a nail-biter race that came down to less than 200 votes, St-Onge said she feels privileged that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped her to join cabinet, and is vowing to bring a new perspective to government decision-making.

“When you have more diversity around the table, there are going to be new preoccupations that are going to be raised, or angles that haven't been seen previously by other people, because we all bring our different experiences to the table,” she said.

'A LOT OF INTERESTS'

While St-Onge said it’s important for these firsts to still be noted, particularly to send the message to young people and members of the LGBTQ2S+ community that there is space for them in politics, “at the same time, my professional past speaks for itself.”

Prior to politics, St-Onge was the president of Quebec-based union organization the Federation nationale des communications et de la culture, where she focused on advocating for the media and cultural sectors. She studied French literature at the University of Quebec, and has a journalism certificate from the University of Montreal.

“Obviously I have a lot of interests in life,” she said.

She also played bass in an indie/alt rock band, Mad June, alongside five friends for around a decade. While it’s been years since they have played, St-Onge said they still get together often.

“It was a good time… But at the same time with my responsibility at the Federation it was like having two lives. A really high-pressure job, and at the same time playing in bars and events at night. So at some point, I had to make a decision, and I went for another passion of mine, which is the arts and the media,” she said.

Deciding to run federally came after taking a call from then national Liberal campaign co-chair and current Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, asking if she’d be interested in running.

“Even though I never thought I would do it, I guess it opened the door and a reflection,” she said. She also said she spoke with Steven Guilbeault about his path, and concluded that she wanted to join in on what she sees as the Liberal government’s push to “make Canada more equal and inclusive.”

'KEEP PUSHING FORWARD'

When it comes to promises made to the LGBTQ2S+ community by the current government, two of the major commitments have now been carried over consecutive elections, left unfulfilled. The 2021 election was the second campaign in which the Liberals pledged to pass legislation cracking down on the harmful practice of conversion therapy, and since 2015 they’ve been pledging to eliminate the blood ban. 

“There is still a lot of work to do… We can't take any rights, any human rights for granted. We've seen regression in different countries, so we need to make sure that we're vocal, that we're loud about these issues, and that we keep on pushing forward,” she said.

St-Onge is one of two out queer women in the 44th Parliament, the other being fellow rookie Conservative MP for Thornhill, Ont. Melissa Lantsman. Former NDP MP Libby Davies was Canada’s first openly lesbian MP, representing Vancouver East, B.C. between 1997 and 2015.

While the list remains relatively short, there have been out lesbians elected at other levels of government, including current Alberta NDP MLA Janis Irwin and former Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

St-Onge joins fellow cabinet newcomer and returning Liberal MP for Edmonton Centre, Alta. Randy Boissonault, who has been named Canada’s minister of tourism and associate minister of finance, as well as Labour Minister and St. John's South—Mount Pearl, Nfld. MP Seamus O’Regan Jr. as the cabinet’s queer contingent.

PLANS FOR HER FILES

St-Onge has spent much of the last week in briefings, getting up to speed on her new files, as she will soon be facing questions in the House of Commons about key issues under her responsibility including the ongoing conversation regarding the NHL’s handling of sexual assault allegations, and the upcoming Winter Olympics.

While she is still diving into these worlds, she said a key focus for her will be making sure that Canadian sporting environments are safe.

“We know how important sport is to mental health, and inclusivity, also social connection. And I think to make sure that vulnerable people, vulnerable communities make sure that they feel included, that they can practice physical activity,” she said. “I think that we still have a lot of work to do, but the first steps have been taken.”

St-Onge said the new position is reconnecting her to her past, as a former athlete. She said she was a swimmer from the ages of six to 16, and then she picked up volleyball and was recruited to play while in university. She stopped when she got injured and now largely jogs, swims and goes kayaking for fun.

“I really understand the reality of the competitive world and the federations, with the coaches and everything that goes into making an athlete successful, so I'm really excited to get to know all the stakeholders and make sure that sport has unique and important place in Canada,” she said.

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