In a rare display, a Toronto Liberal incumbent broke rank and refused to defend her party for not lifting blood donation restrictions for men who have sex with men.
During an all candidates forum Wednesday night, she sparred with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, NDP candidate Brian Chang and Conservative candidate Ryan Lester. The two candidates from the NDP and the Conservative Party are members of the LGBTQ community.
Both candidates and Paul pounced on Ien for being part of a government that promised, but hasn’t ended a Canadian Blood Services policy that prevents men from donating blood if they’ve recently had sex with other men, sometimes referred to as the MSM population.
Ien is running for re-election in Toronto Centre, the home to the city’s historic gay village.
“I’m not even going to begin to defend this because I think you’re right,” said Ien, who has been an MP for less than a year. “I just got here, and so I want everybody to know and the young people watching, and members of the LGBTQ community watching, that I’m here and I’m pushing.”
The Canadian Blood Services’ policy prohibits men who have sex with men from donating blood in Canada unless they’ve been celibate for a period of time. For years, the not-for-profit Canadian Blood Services has argued the wait period is necessary because HIV is more prevalent among men who have sex with men.
The Liberal government has promised to end the ban, which it has described as discriminatory. The promise was made in both the 2015 and 2019 federal elections. But the change has not occurred. The promise is absent from the 2021 platform.
Ien also said a re-elected Liberal government would prioritize conversion therapy legislation, which passed through the House of the Commons but died in the Senate once the election was called in August. The bill would have criminalized forcing children or adults to undergo therapy aimed at altering their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Conservatives were the only party in the House whose members voted against the bill. Lester, the Toronto Centre Conservative candidate, said during the debate he opposes the stance of some within his party.
Move to end campus voting is ‘voter suppression: Paul
Wednesday night’s debate was hosted by Ryerson University’s Democratic Engagement Exchange. All the candidates applauded the university’s decision to change its name due to its namesake’s association with the legacy of residential schools.
Egerton Ryerson is considered one of the primary architects of Canada’s residential school system.
During the debate, the Green Party Leader said Elections Canada’s decision to suspend campus voting during a pandemic suppresses democracy.
“I’m going to call it voter suppression,” Paul said. “And the fact that we have students on campus during the pandemic without the opportunity to participate, that I consider it voter suppression.”
Paul said this election should have never been called and said cancelling on-campus voting was treating students like “second-class citizens.” Although there are no on-campus polls there are other options for students to cast their vote.
Elections Canada cancelled the program, which previously provided polling stations on Canadian campuses, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertain timelines around a minority government.
Paul, who doesn’t have a seat in the House of Commons, is running for the third time in the downtown riding of Toronto Centre.
The last time Paul ran — during an Oct. 2020 byelection — she also slammed the Liberals for calling the vote just as a third wave of COVID-19 hit racialized and low-income neighbourhoods in the riding.
At one point during last fall’s byelection, Paul called on the Liberals to suspend the vote.
Paul lost the October byelection to Ien, the Liberal star candidate and former television broadcaster. During Wednesday night’s debate, Ien argued a snap election was needed because Parliament had become unworkable.
“I sat in committees that were filibustered. I sat through sessions that were filibustered. I sat through virtual Parliament that was filibustered,” Ien said.
Paul disagreed that Parliament was not working.”It’s just breathtakingly untrue and incorrect,” she said.
“The Opposition is there to hold the government accountable. It doesn’t mean because you’re asked questions in committee and that you’re pressed for answers and pressed to do things better, that parliament isn’t working.”