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Lana Payne: Deafening silence from Premier Dwight Ball on International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

Premier Dwight Ball speaks to reporters Thursday outside the House of Assembly.
Premier Dwight Ball

It was a golden opportunity. One the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador completely missed, or ignored, deliberately or otherwise. It was a chance to show leadership on an important matter of human rights.

And this year, the people of our LGBTQ community really needed their premier to step up.

May 17 marked the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Given recent events in the province, it was the perfect time for a premier who wanted to show his commitment, awareness, understanding of and belief in human rights and inclusion to make a statement, to send a strong message, to lead.

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Instead, Dwight Ball was silent. No statement from him. Not even a tweet from his account or the government’s twitter account for that matter. No assurance to the LGBTQ community that he will use the power and privilege of his position to send a clear message about inclusion and homophobia. Nothing. Nada.

Two recent incidents — the decision by the Springdale town council to say no to a rainbow crosswalk and then a second decision by some Middle Arm parents to keep their kids from attending a school presentation on inclusion — have sparked a clearly much-needed discussion in the province about the discrimination still faced by the LGBTQ community and in particular the need to address the fears faced by LGBTQ youth.

Instead, the duty (which left the impression the Ball government was merely ticking a box) fell to Minister of Social Development Lisa Dempster, who read a short statement in the House of Assembly to mark May 17.

It was an okay statement and perhaps in any other year it might have been sufficient. Not this year.

Perhaps there are those who don’t think this is a big deal. I disagree. It is a very big deal for the kids who desperately need to know they are not alone, that there is space and place for them, that their differences are respected and that they are loved and included. Symbols like rainbow crosswalks matter. Statements from leaders matter.  Words matter. Turning those words of respect and inclusion into action and societal change matters.

And when you’re silent, it can be interpreted as agreement.

We appear to have a premier who is uncomfortable discussing human rights.

This missed opportunity for the leader of the province to talk about inclusion and respect is symbolic of something bigger. The problems plaguing this government at the moment stem from a lack of leadership on important things like equality.

Consider the harassment and bullying complaints from women MHAs, suspended male colleagues from the Liberal caucus, an ongoing investigation, a lack of trust in the investigative process, and a premier who seems not to have known he had a problem in his cabinet room and his caucus. How does that happen? Some serious self-reflecting is required here. And then implement systems and processes, prevention and training and whatever it takes to ensure the political workplace is a respectful one. Because if white women with some power and authority and privilege face harassment, imagine what women in precarious work environments face. Imagine what women with less power and privilege face.  Fixing it at the top sends a message that such behaviours are not acceptable.

And if the premier’s office was notified of harassment and bullying problems (prior to there being a formal complaint), how is it that the premier was not briefed?

Ignorance and oblivion are not bliss when you’re a premier.

Last week, I took part in a panel on workplace harassment, with a spotlight on what’s happening in Newfoundland and Labrador politics at the moment.

And throughout the discussion on sexism, inequality, respectful workplaces, the need to modernize labour laws in this province, the poor economic status of women (we have one of the biggest — if not the biggest — gender pay gaps in the country) a common theme emerged. Changing these things requires leadership.

Yes, leadership matters. It is often in uncomfortable moments when leaders face their toughest tests. Newfoundland and Labrador is currently having an uncomfortable moment and our leader is missing in action.

No wonder people are cranky.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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