Feds’ lift of ban on gay blood donations a move for next election

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Last week’s announcement fulfilled a Liberal promise to lift the ban on gay blood donations, but it was also designed to drive a further wedge inside the Conservative Party, especially as it related to leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 2, 2022.

OTTAWA—Full equality moved one step closer in Canada last week when the federal government finally lifted the ban on gay blood donations.

While the announcement was made by the prime minister, several gay colleagues were there to back him up.

The Liberals had promised to remove the ban when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was first elected back in 2015. Because the ban had not been lifted, a discrimination case was slowly making its way through the courts that might have provoked a judicial overturning of the prohibition.

That case claimed that the federal government had no right to impose a ban via Health Canada because the Canadian Blood Services Agency was an independent body. As such, it enjoyed an arm’s length position which meant it should not be subject to federal government interference.

In the case of the Trudeau announcement, the prime minister defended the lengthy delay in delivering on the promise by saying the government needed to fund scientific research to affirm the political promise.

But there is no doubt the announcement was political in nature. The ban removal will cover all Canadians except for those who live in Quebec. Quebec gay donors will still be prohibited but the prime minister said he was confident that Héma-Québec would likely decide to move in the same direction.

Cabinet ministers Seamus O’Regan and Randy Boissonnault and Liberal MP Rob Oliphant were among those commenting on the decision.

Boissonnault is the first openly gay Member of Parliament from Alberta, and he eked out a narrow victory against Conservative incumbent James Cumming in a downtown Edmonton riding.

Unlike some Conservative colleagues, Cumming voted against a Tory party’s motion to ban abortion and voted in favour of criminalizing conversion therapy so both men shared similar views.

In the last election, even in British Columbia, social Conservatives were defeated in almost every urban centre. The defeat of those members stalled the momentum of the Conservative party and left the door open for the Liberals to win another, albeit minority, election.

Last week’s announcement fulfilled a Liberal promise but it was also designed to drive a further wedge inside the Conservative Party, especially as it related to leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre is no friend of the gay community. One of his first actions as a Member of Parliament was to oppose public health-care funding for people who are undergoing gender reassignment. Poilievre wanted to defund surgery for transgender individuals seeking to change their sex. He went so far as to falsely claim that the reassignment medical procedure does not require surgery.

Back in 2008, Poilievre was the youngest Member of Parliament. In more recent times, he has been focused more on pocketbook issues as an appeal to the young. The bitcoin and blockchain references that he sprinkles in his speeches are designed to appeal to young people even as they miff economists and traditional bankers.

But those same young people are also in favour of non-binary and transgender decision-making.

Poilievre’s colleague in the race, Leslyn Lewis, is recruiting more social conservatives who will be pushing their anti-abortion and pro-conversion perspectives in public policy.

For Poilievre to be embraced by the mainstream, he needs to go mainstream. That involves repudiating positions he has taken in the past that discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

Like any other Canadian, a gay or lesbian voter does not necessarily make their electoral decision strictly on a single issue, even if it affects their own sexuality.

They, too, are interested in tax policy, social issues, and many other elements of governance that are assessed during an election by every voter.

But in a multi-party system, a voter shift of three or four per cent can actually change the face of government.

So, when a health announcement on blood is made, it is just as much a move for the next election as it was for the past one.

Fulfilling the promise on ending gay blood bans was important for the Liberals. With the New Democrats involved in a governance agreement, the Grits believe they have a chance to court a larger swath on the left in the next election.

But in several years of government, enemies are made, and the sunny ways of 2015 have given way to clouds on the Trudeau horizon.

In the next race, it will be crucial to solidify minority votes because Tories will bleed votes from disgruntled former Liberals on the right who fear the fiscal bottom line.

Every LGBTQ vote will count.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.