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Canadian project protects and supports LGBTQI+ populations in the Global South

LGBTQI+ people in countries around the world can face discrimination, violence, persecution and even criminalization based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

For those looking to flee such dangerous environments, Canada offers protection through its refugee resettlement initiatives. The Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program lets private groups sponsor eligible refugees abroad. In particular, under the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Partnership (RRAP), community groups, with government support, privately sponsor LGBTQI+ refugees. This has helped refugees resettle across the country, from Nova Scotia to Ontario and British Columbia.

Making such sponsorship opportunities possible in places other than Canada would expand the options of safe and accepting communities for LGBTQI+ people who are at risk in their own countries. That is a goal of one of the programs supported by the Act Together for Inclusion Fund (ACTIF), a 7-year, $16.7-million project of Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

ACTIF is part of a $30-million initiative announced by GAC in 2019 to advance the human rights and socio-economic outcomes of LGBTQI+ people and communities in developing countries. Implemented by Equitas in collaboration with Dignity Network Canada, ACTIF has begun to assist Canadian and developing-country partners focused on vulnerable LGBTQI+ populations around the world. 

Figure 1

Pax Santos is the program manager at Rainbow Railroad and manages the group’s ACTIF-funded project.
Credit: Kat Hartog

“We are talking about enhancing local efforts to move the dial on LGBTQI+ rights globally,” says Pax Santos, program manager at Rainbow Railroad. She says the group’s 2-year pilot program funded through ACTIF—Building Durable Solutions for LGBTQI+ Refugees in the Global South—is designed to strengthen the internal capacities of 6 LGBTQI+ partner groups in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. This includes helping them create LGBTQI+ refugee sponsorship programs similar to Canada’s RRAP.

“This is local citizens driving resettlement,” explains Santos, who manages the ACTIF-funded project. Rainbow Railroad is supporting its partners on the ground through training and sharing the comprehensive materials it has developed on the private sponsorship of LGBTQI+ refugees, to be adapted to local situations. The ACTIF funds are also helping partner groups improve the services they provide, such as addressing the mental-health needs of the LGBTQI+ individuals they assist.

Walking the talk

Connecting with LGBTQI+ organizations in other countries and involving them in such programming is a major goal of ACTIF, says Doug Kerr, executive director of Dignity Network Canada. The group includes some 50 civil society organizations across Canada that are interested in advancing human rights for LGBTQI+ people globally.

Figure 2

Doug Kerr (left), executive director of Dignity Network Canada, visits Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, with Mariano Ruiz, project coordinator of Fundación Amal Argentina, who was a special guest at Halifax Pride this past summer.
Credit: Courtesy of Dignity Network Canada

Kerr points out that when the diverse coalition came together informally in 2015, Canada “was not at all a player in this space.” With LGBTQI+ people in many parts of the world facing state-sponsored violence, prison and other forms of oppression, activists called on Canada to “walk the talk,” he says, which led to his network being formalized in 2020.

He says ACTIF provides government funding for partners that have been working on global LGBTQI+ issues for some time. Such support was previously piecemeal, for example coming through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI), which allows individual Canadian missions in countries around the world to provide small grants to help finance the activities and initiatives of local organizations.

ACTIF goes much further than the CFLI can, Kerr says, and it encourages innovation and flexibility in its grants, which leads to a “broad range of groups trying different things.” Under ACTIF, there will be 4 rounds of funding totalling $9.7 million, he says. These will support multiple-year initiatives implemented by Canadian organizations in collaboration with local developing country partners.

Kerr notes that organizations selected to receive support through the first ACTIF call for proposal in 2021 include 2 initiatives that deal with mental health and wellness for queer activists abroad. One is being implemented by Canada’s International Francophone Alliance for Equality and Diversities (Égides) in partnership with 4 groups in Cameroon and Haiti, while the other is being implemented by the Stephen Lewis Foundation and 6 partner groups in Kenya and Uganda.

Figure 3

Canada’s Stephen Lewis Foundation has received ACTIF funding for a project that deals with mental health and wellness for queer activists in Kenya and Uganda. To celebrate World Mental Health Day on October 10, partner Icebreakers Uganda staged an event in Kampala where participants  Nagykatims Ali (left) and Ramlat Ali held placards with mental health messaging.
Credit: Sofi Lundin

ACTIF also includes $600,000 to support smaller, short-term initiatives, such as helping LGBTQI+ human rights defenders in developing countries respond to immediate threats or take advantage of small-scale emerging opportunities. The first such smaller initiative to be supported by ACTIF involves a group of queer filmmakers in Haiti who are working on films on LGBTQI+ human rights issues in their country that aim to influence public opinion and decision-makers there. This initiative was implemented by the Massimadi Foundation, a Black and Afro 2SLGBTQI+  cultural group in Montréal, in partnership with Institut Équité, Diversité, Inclusion, Intersectionnalité at Laval University and Institut Panos in Haiti.

The ACTIF project is also designed to facilitate knowledge-exchange activities between Canadian and international organizations working to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ people.

A human rights-based approach

François Legault, a senior development officer at GAC whose responsibilities include overseeing ACTIF, says that at the core of such programming is a human rights-based approach that works to protect and support vulnerable and marginalized groups. It involves people and communities specifically as “actors in their own development.” This makes them participants and agents of change at every step of a project.

“We try to work on reducing the power imbalance and increasing the respect for human rights for all parts of the population,” Legault says. He adds that ACTIF’s governance structure aims to engage LGBTQI+ organizations—large and small, from different regions and countries—at all stages of the project-selection process and funding cycle. Its advisory committee and project-selection committee include a diverse group of international and developing-country activists.

Figure 4

François Legault is a senior development officer at GAC whose responsibilities include overseeing ACTIF.
Credit: Carol Hoppy

“The whole idea is to apply principles of inclusion and diversity in project governance and respect the fact that community members should be the ones having a major say, for example, in how the fund will be managed and its governance structures,” he says. “It corresponds to a desired evolution of our ways of doing things at Global Affairs Canada, in line with the principles of our Feminist International Assistance Policy.”

Tashi Pietrzykowska, communications and public engagement manager at Dignity Network Canada, says that this model supports and empowers LGBTQI+ people to make decisions and push for change in their own contexts. “It’s definitely the steppingstone to opening up a large amount of dialogue and accountability toward all parties involved.”

For Fundación Amal Argentina (AMAL), a volunteer group based in Buenos Aires that works to promote community sponsorship of LGBTQI+ migrants and refugees, the support received from ACTIF raises its profile and improves its capabilities. Mariano Ruiz, the group’s project coordinator, says that ACTIF also provides a “point of connection” between Canada and Argentina, which have much in common as countries with long histories of immigration.

Support makes group more professional

AMAL has helped LGBTQI+ refugees around the world flee state-sponsored homophobia and violence and seek asylum in Argentina. Having a more established sponsorship program like Canada’s RRAP would assist their resettlement, Ruiz says. This would mean that such people could get help for needs such as housing, health care, education and psychological support.

Funding from ACTIF is being used to train people to help migrants and refugees who identify as LGBTQI+ and to expand the pool of potential groups in Argentina that can act as sponsors, Ruiz says. AMAL, which has been largely informal and made up of volunteers, is now able to pay some of its staff, expand the types of individuals it can help and create marketing materials to reach out to potential donors. “We are trying to professionalize our organization,” Ruiz says.

Figure 5

Mariano Ruiz is the project coordinator of Fundación Amal Argentina.
Credit: Courtesy of AMAL

Improving life for LGBTQI+ populations in the Global South is a major focus of ACTIF. For instance, Santos says Rainbow Railroad’s project is designed to bolster the advocacy efforts of the local groups it supports like AMAL and improve LGBTQI+ rights on the ground. She notes that her organization received requests for help from LGBTQI+ individuals in 143 countries last year. Getting at the root causes of discrimination that people face in such places could make life better for them there.

“In an ideal world, people aren’t requesting our help because they’re fleeing persecution or violence on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” she says. “If you can enhance the human-rights structures and the organizing capacity of local human rights defenders and advocates, it’s ultimately going to reduce the amount of people who need to seek out services like Rainbow Railroad.”

The $30-million program from the Canadian government “is a big win…We’re happy to see funding like this,” says Santos. She adds that the ACTIF project itself “is an amazing start. I think it shows a real commitment to mainstreaming LGBTQI+ people in international discussions and particularly with regard to international-development funding.”

Legault says that in many ways ACTIF is a work in progress. “As we’re learning, with all of these small steps forward, we can move further,” he comments. Such progress builds enhanced capacity within GAC and the Canadian and international organizations it is supporting. The key is to focus on urgent issues, such as helping LGBTQI+ people who are under immediate threat in countries abroad, while helping to change legislation and cultural attitudes there.

Making links with global partners

Kerr feels that ACTIF is helping to make links with partners in the Global South and he expects further developments. “Canada is absolutely starting to walk the talk,” he says. “But our work isn’t done.”

The project is also bringing Canada together with other countries that are active in the field, he says. There could be a move to focus on certain regions or combine Canadian efforts with those of other countries, he adds. “One of the great things about this project is that we are connecting to similar initiatives around the world, so there is some coherence to what we’re funding.”

Kerr says that while it’s important to have ACTIF’s “standalone” LGBTQI+ programming, in the future he would like to see LGBTQI+ initiatives funded through more general international-development projects. This would include those with programming dealing with democracy, peace and security or gender equality.

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