Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Miriam Smith.
Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking, 1971-1995.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 211 pp. $50.00 cloth (0802043917), $17.95 paper (0802081975).

Canadian social movements are greatly understudied, and Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada is a very welcome addition to the literature. The study provides detailed empirical data on the evolution of organizations and strategies in the movement over nearly 25 years. It also contributes to social movement theory with a compelling analysis of the changing impact of political opportunities, as mediated by organization and resources, on movement organizational structures and strategies and tactics. In particular, the book examines the impact of the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, making an important contribution to the debate over the Charter’s impact on Canadian politics. As Smith notes, Canadian adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a rare example of a major structural change in an advanced capitalist democracy. The Charter opened up new opportunities for social movements to use the courts to bring about social change. Smith does not share the view of some Canadian political scientists who fear the Charter has “Americanized” Canadian politics by allowing “special interests” to circumvent the role of Parliament, but she does demonstrate the impact of the new political opportunities created by the Charter on the lesbian and gay rights movement.

Smith focuses on the activities of organizations seeking equality in the federal jurisdiction, such as Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE). She begins, however, by providing a broader historical context for these equality-seeking actions, discussing the origins of lesbian and gay activism and some of the tensions within the movement, such as differences in the agendas of lesbians and gay men. Smith stresses that the Canadian lesbian and gay rights movement is not a unitary actor, but rather a decentralized network, and that strategies of groups like EGALE are frequently criticized by others in the movement. More research on local groups throughout Canada is needed to provide a fuller picture of this diverse movement, but Smith uses extensive archival data and in-depth interviews with activists to show how one part of the movement responded to new political opportunities over time.

In her analysis of movement strategies before the Charter, Smith shows that equality-seeking and rights claiming did not begin with the entrenchment of the Charter. Interestingly, the movement began to use litigation as a tactic in the 1970s “despite the fact that the chances of success were dismal and that the financial and organizational resources of gay liberation groups were meager” (p. 42). Influenced in part by the American civil rights movement, the Canadian gay liberation movement adopted litigation tactics and a form of “rights talk” that became widespread with the protest movements of the 1960s. Thus, Smith suggests that the movement was already “Americanized” in a sense well before the Charter. Political opportunities were clearly not the only influence on movement strategies, but neither was the movement blind to political realities. The movement did take advantage of the opening provided by human rights commissions at the provincial and federal levels, which were targeted with complaints about discrimination in an effort to create legal changes. In 1977, Quebec became the first province to include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in its human rights charter (an outcome that ironically slowed down movement organizing in Quebec). However, gay liberation groups also engaged in litigation that had no real chance of succeeding as an explicit strategy for building the movement. At a time when many gays were still in the closet, the movement needed to raise consciousness and create a political identity; litigation was recognized as a strategy that allowed the movement to accomplish this objective. Although doomed to fail, litigation allowed the movement to make public claims of gay civil rights in the 1970s. For many activists in the 1970s, the “rights” agenda was clearly linked to the broader goals of the gay liberation movement.

The entrenchment of the Charter in 1982, and the coming into force of section 15 on equality rights in 1985, had an important impact on movement strategies. With the advent of the Charter, the role of the courts in Canada expanded greatly, and movements had a new opportunity to use litigation to bring about legal change. Smith argues that this change created a new form of “rights talk” that “defines social and political change as legal change” (p. 75). In contrast to the broader aims of gay liberationists in the 1970s, the Charter encouraged movement activists to seek constitutionally guaranteed rights as an end in themselves. Litigation was actively encouraged by the Canadian government, which established the Court Challenges Program in 1985 to provide funding for disadvantaged litigants. The political opportunity was obvious, but as in the 1970s, the relationship between political opportunity and strategy was not clear-cut. EGALE suffered from a lack of resources and organizational strength, which undermined its ability to reach out to lesbian and gay groups across Canada and to secure a large share of the state funding available for litigation. In Quebec, ties between the gay and lesbian movement and the separatist movement prevented the former from taking advantage of the federal-level political opportunities. Thus, resource limitations and ideology can both prevent movements from taking full advantage of political opportunities. Smith argues that the social and political changes of the 1970s and 1980s, including the visibility of lesbian and gay communities, created the conditions for participation in federal-level equality-seeking.

By the 1990s, a reorganized EGALE had become a more credible federal lobby, but the group continued to focus narrowly on Charter-based rights. In framing issues such as relationship recognition, the lobby avoided broader debates in gay and lesbian communities over issues such as class inequalities and alternative models of family life. Although debates over the type of “rights talk” engendered by the Charter continued within the movement, the expanded opportunities for legal equality at the federal level had a profound influence on movement strategies and organizations. Smith does an excellent job surveying movement litigation and documenting changes in movement frames in a highly readable and interesting book. I would like to see the author theorize further about the complex relationship between political opportunity and movement organization, resources, and ideology that is evident in her account of the Canadian lesbian and gay rights movement.

Suzanne Staggenborg
McGill University
March-April 2000
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