Mayor Tory Missed Opportunity to Speak Up for Gay Chechens
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Mayor Tory Missed Opportunity to Speak Up for Gay Chechens

Human rights organizations like Rainbow Railroad are calling on the Canadian government to grant emergency visas to people trying to escape.

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Mayor John Tory at the annual City Hall flag-raising for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17. Photo by Marina Tyszkiewic.

At the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and
Biphobia flag-raising ceremony on the roof of Toronto City Hall, Mayor
John Tory spoke generally about inclusivity, but was silent on the crisis currently unfolding in Chechnya, a human rights emergency involving government-organized kidnappings, torture, and murder of hundreds of gay, and presumed to be gay and bisexual men.

Instead, Tory spoke about the need for inclusion and acceptance.

“We pride ourselves on what has to be the next step that you take when you are the most diverse city in the world, which is to strive each and every day to become the most inclusive city in the world,” Tory told the crowd of about 100 at the annual event.

In January, Tory reaffirmed Toronto’s status as a sanctuary city, after Donald Trump issued an immigration ban in the U.S. 

We later reached out to ask why Tory did not mention the current international crisis affecting LGBTQ people. Tory’s staff later sent a statement:

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There are 72 countries where homosexuality is still a criminal offence. Of that, there are about eight countries where it is punishable by death, according to Toronto-based Rainbow Railroad. Founded in 2006, executive director Kimahli Powell says the organization has helped more than 81 LGBTQ people around the world escape to freedom. Some of those in countries include Jamaica, Uganda, and Nigeria, where the situation for queer and trans people has become increasingly more dangerous. The organization has various strategies for assisting LGBTQ people facing immediate danger.

“We are a Canada solution to a Global problem,” says Powell. 

Rainbow Railroad’s efforts include helping individuals locate safe houses in their home countries, providing funds to individuals in hiding, creating travel arrangements, and counselling for people looking to flee their home. Their recent initiatives have been focused on the unfolding crisis in Chechnya.

According to several human rights organizations, the Chechen government has ordered police to perform a “preventative mopping up,” which has resulted in gay, or presumably gay, men being rounded up by officials, arrested, and thrown inside of torture camps.


Reports verified by human rights groups and first-hand accounts from men who escaped say they were heavily beaten, tortured with electric currents and have witnessed men being forced to sit on bottles, while others were bludgeoned several times day, some to the extent of being killed. In some instances, families have been summoned by authorities and ordered to kill their child as an “honour killing.” If relatives decline the authorities do it themselves.

“What we discovered is there are more than 200 people across four camps,” says Powell.

Later in the evening, Powell was on a panel discussing Canada’s role in supporting LGBTQ refugees from Chechnya, and all countries that persecute queer and trans people, at the Centre for Social Innovation.

The room was packed with people interested to learn more about the Chechyan crisis, and what they could do to help.

Powell described the situation in Chechnya as “horrific.” In the last week alone, he says, Rainbow Railroad has helped five men escape out of Chechnya, in addition to nine others from countries such as Iraq and Uganda.

Although Rainbow Railroad was able to help individuals flee out of Chechnya, many aspects of the international crisis are simply out of the organization’s hands, Powell says. “The removal of people in those camps is out of our control. It’s up to international control.” 

Chechnya is an ultra-conservative Muslim society that is governed by authoritarian leader, Alu Alkhanov, who is an ally of Moscow. 

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International human rights activists Carlos Idibouo, Kimahli Powell and Justin Romanov discussing Canada’s role in supporting LGBTQ refugees on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia Photo via Twitter.

Despite criticism from human rights groups and international condemnation, the government of Chechnya has denied being involved in an anti-gay campaign, and has denied all the allegations of abuse. The press secretary for President Ramzan Kadyrov went as far to say that it’s impossible for the allegations to hold any truth because gay people do not exist in Chechnya.

Since Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta broke the story April 2017, and the journalist has gone into hiding, the Canadian governments efforts on addressing the crisis in Chechnya remains ambiguous

During a recent visit to Toronto, Canada’s Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen said the Canadian government is “exploring various options” to help assist the victims. Hussen, however, refused to elaborate on what the steps going forward will be telling the press “I am not able to go into detail at the moment,” he said. 

While Canada’s role in responding to the crisis remains up in the air, Powell says his organization has made efforts to work with them.

“We began talks immediately with our government. I am really optimistic about our governments role, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Some men from Chechnya have fled to Russia, but the situation for LGBTQ people in Russia is grim, and getting increasingly worse, says Justin Romanov, a young gay Russian Canadian activist, who joined the panel to share his story.

In 2013, Russia passed the now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law, which banned “propaganda on non-traditional relations to minors.” The legislation directly criminalized LGBTQ groups and peer support networks, such as groups like PFLAG, and that particularly targeted queer youth. In this climate, Romonav had to flee.

“When I talk to my friends the situation is getting worse and worse every day,” he says. Romonav, 21, is a Russian-born citizen who escaped to Canada three years ago after he came out to his family and peers when he turned 14. Shortly after coming out, many of his peers began to bully him. He says he was beaten right in front of police who refused to intervene. He says police in Russia rarely penalize individuals for targeting people if they are presumed to be gay.


Justin Romanov with other Toronto LGBTQ activists at a recent rally on Church Street calling on Canada’s government to do more to support gay people trying to escape Chechnya. Photo courtesy of Romanov.

One day, while protesting at an anti-homophobia protest in Russia, he was arrested. His friend was beaten by police during a similar protest and died when he succumbed to his injuries in hospital days later. 

After enduring extensive harassment and abuse Romanov transferred schools, but was kicked out when his teachers discovered he was gay, after seeing posts on his social media. He decided to take matters into his own hands and reached out to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin for help.

“I wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin to protect me… I was naïve,” he said. At the time, Romanov says Putin had been actively trying present the image of a progressive leader. The response he received however was not what he had expected. Three months after sending the letter to Putin, police arrived at his home, they told Romanov and his parents that his sexuality was the result of American influence, and that he was the victim of pedophilia. 

With the support of his mother Romonav escaped out of Russia. He says coming to Canada was not any easy process, but it likely saved his life. “When I came to Canada I thought I was in heaven, it’s absolutely different than Russia,” he said.