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Svend Robinson

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Svend Robinson

Svend Robinson
Svend Robinson at the January 2003 NDP convention in Toronto
Member of Parliament for Burnaby
In office
Preceded by new district
Succeeded by riding dissolved
Member of Parliament for Burnaby—Kingsway
In office
Preceded by new district
Succeeded by riding dissolved
Member of Parliament for Burnaby—Douglas
In office
Preceded by new district
Succeeded by Bill Siksay
Personal details
Born (1952-03-04) March 4, 1952
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Political party New Democratic Party
Spouse(s) Patricia Fraser (1972–1975)
Max Riveron (1994-present)
Occupation politician

Svend Robinson (born March 4, 1952) is a Canadian former politician. He was a Member of Parliament in the Canadian House of Commons from 1979 to 2004, representing the suburban Vancouver-area constituency of Burnaby for the New Democratic Party. When he chose not to run again in the June 2004 election, he was one of the longest-serving members in the House of Commons, having been elected and re-elected for seven consecutive terms.

He is noted as the first Member of Parliament in Canadian history to come out as gay while in office.[1]

Early life

Robinson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, of Danish descent to Edith Jensen and Wayne Robinson. His father opposed the Vietnam War and brought his family to live in Canada. Robinson attended high school at Burnaby North Secondary. He later obtained a law degree from the University of British Columbia, and completed post-graduate work in international law at the London School of Economics.[2] He was awarded the highest overall honour at the University of British Columbia in 1972, the Sherwood Lett Memorial Scholarship. He was also active in university politics, serving on the Senate and the first student to be elected to the university's board of governors.

He was called to the BC Bar as a barrister and solicitor in 1978, and practised law with Robert Gardner and Associates until his election to the House of Commons in May 1979.[2]

Prior to coming out as gay, Robinson was married to Patricia Fraser, his high school girlfriend, from 1972 to 1975.[2]


Robinson was the New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament (MP) for ridings in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, British Columbia, the third-largest city in British Columbia.

As the longest-serving British Columbia MP of his time, in office from 1979 to 2004, Svend Robinson is notable for having been the first Canadian MP to come out as gay, in the spring of 1988. He has since been followed by other gay and lesbian politicians in Parliament: Bloc Québécois MPs Réal Ménard and Raymond Gravel, fellow New Democrats Libby Davies and Bill Siksay, Progressive Conservative (later Liberal) MP Scott Brison, and Liberal Party of Canada MP Mario Silva, as well as Senators Laurier LaPierre and Nancy Ruth.

Robinson, a self-described socialist, is commonly regarded as being one of the most left-wing figures in Canadian politics. He is best known for his negative views on American foreign policy, especially towards Cuba, his challenge of corporate power, his strident criticism of Israel, and his strong support for Palestinian leaders. Party leader McDonough briefly removed Robinson's portfolio over Middle East issues in 2002 for comments he made criticizing the Israeli government for alleged war crimes in Jenin.[3]

One of his earliest political activities was leading a group of NDP MPs who heckled former US President [2]

Robinson was a leader in the movement for the right to physician-assisted suicide, fighting for the right of well-known ALS patient Sue Rodriguez to choose when to end her life with the assistance of a physician. He was ultimately present at her bedside at the time of her physician-assisted death.[4]

A strong environmentalist, he engaged in peaceful civil disobedience to block logging of old-growth forests at Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii in 1985 and at Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1993.[5] For the latter action, he was sentenced to 14 days of imprisonment.[5] Robinson was also an outspoken advocate of the rights of aboriginal peoples both in Canada and internationally. He stood at barricades with the Penan people in Sarawak, Malaysia and was condemned by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.[2] He was adopted into the Haida Nation, and given the Haida name "White Swan" by Haida elder Ada Yovanovich.[2]

Robinson ran to succeed Audrey McLaughlin as leader of the NDP at the 1995 NDP leadership convention, but withdrew in favour of Alexa McDonough after the first ballot; even though he had received the most votes on that ballot, and had won regional primaries in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, he felt that he could not win on the second ballot as last-place candidate Lorne Nystrom's delegates were moving disproportionately to McDonough rather than Robinson.[6]

On December 31, 1997, Robinson was injured in a hiking accident on Galiano Island, breaking his jaw and ankle.[7]

Robinson was involved in the New Politics Initiative, an effort to build a new progressive political party in Canada closely linked with social movements and labour,[8] and the NDP's renewal process, although he remained committed to the party after the NPI's defeat at the 2001 general convention in Winnipeg. He was an early and strong supporter of former national NDP Leader Jack Layton.

In 2003, Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein suggested that September 11 be designated as "America Day" to commemorate the American victims of September 11, 2001. Robinson proposed that the day also be designated as "Chile Day", to mark the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende's democratically elected government on September 11, 1973. Neither proposal was accepted.

Robinson successfully sponsored legislation in Parliament in 2004 to include sexual orientation in federal hate crimes legislation.[9] He was also active on HIV/AIDS issues from the start of the epidemic in the early 1980s.[2]

Admission to theft and end of political career

In April 2004, shortly before 2004 election, Robinson admitted to the theft of an expensive ring from a public auction site. He turned himself in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and returned the ring shortly after police visited his home and office, wishing to speak with him. While the auction company publicly stated that they did not wish to pursue charges, Robinson was charged and pleaded guilty. The Crown and defence both agreed that he was undergoing major personal stress and mental health issues at the time; Robinson was given a discharge, meaning that he would have no criminal record, but he volunteered for some time at the Burnaby Wildlife Centre as part of a public service commitment.[10] He terminated his candidacy and was replaced by his longtime constituency assistant Bill Siksay, who won the election.[11]

Robinson was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, and began to speak as an activist on mental health issues.[12]

Robinson attempted a comeback and ran as an NDP candidate in the 2006 federal election, challenging Liberal MP Hedy Fry in the riding of Vancouver Centre.[10] Despite an improved result for the NDP provincewide, Fry easily won reelection in her riding, where the NDP vote fell by 3.6 per cent.

Post-political career

Since leaving politics, Robinson was employed by the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union as an arbitrator and advocate.[13] He also served on the NDP's federal executive as co-chair of the party's LGBT Committee.

Robinson took a position in 2007 with the global trade union federation Public Services International in Switzerland,[13] where he moved with his partner Max Riveron and their two dogs. He led PSI's work on a range of issues including climate change, pensions, and trade. In 2009, he was co-chair of the International LGBT Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen,[1] and received an award from the Conseil québécois des gais et lesbiennes for his human rights activism.[14]

He is currently a consultant with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, coordinating their parliamentary relations.[1]


Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, written by Graeme Truelove, was released on October 17, 2013 by New Star Books.[15] In the book, Truelove argues that Robinson was the single most influential Member of Parliament in Canadian history never to have served in the Cabinet of Canada.[15]

Awards and honours

  • L'Ordre de la Pleiade, Chevalier, 1990 For exceptional service to La Francophonie
  • Award for Human Rights, May 1993 Lambda Foundation.
  • The Edith Adamson Award for Leadership in Issues of Conscience in 1995.
  • Elena Gil Iberoamerican Award on Ethics, June 1995 Felix Varela Centre, Cuba.
  • Tom Stoddard National Role Model Award, May 1997 presented by PrideFest America.
  • Hero Award, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in August 1999 by The Canadian Bar Association.
  • Presidents Award, 2003 Canadian Arab Federation.
  • Kurdish Human Rights Prize, Adar 2614.
  • Grand prix du CQGL 2009, decerned by Conseil québécois des gais et lesbiennes at Gala Arc-en-Ciel
  • Panelist at the conference to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, discussing "The Making of s.15: Collaboration by Government, Community Activists and Legal Experts."
  • Member of Canadian Committee for 50th Anniversary of United Nations, 1995


  1. ^ a b c "Trailblazer Svend Robinson congratulates Kathleen Wynne, Canada's first openly gay premier". Yahoo! News, January 28, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Graeme Truelove, Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics. New Star Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-55420-072-6.
  3. ^ "NDP demotes Robinson because of 'misperception'". CBC News, April 18, 2002.
  4. ^ Joan M. Gilmour, "Death, Dying and Decision-Making about End of Life Care" in Jocelyn Downie et al (eds), Canadian Health Law and Policy (Canada: LexisNexis, 2007), page 471
  5. ^ a b "Twenty years later, the "War in the Woods" at Clayoquot Sound still reverberates across B.C.". Global News, August 11, 2013.
  6. ^ Windsor, Hugh (1995-10-16). "Second fiddle leads NDP: McDonough wins, Robinson gives in".  
  7. ^ "Svend Robinson has surgery after hiking accident". CBC News, January 1, 1998.
  8. ^ David Mutimer, Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs 2001. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-9235-9.
  9. ^ "MPs vote to protect gays under hate law". CBC News, September 18, 2003.
  10. ^ a b "Svend Robinson Running in Election". Maclean's, December 19, 2005.
  11. ^ "MP Svend Robinson admits theft, takes stress leave".  
  12. ^ "Svend Robinson speaks out about illness". CBC News, October 26, 2005.
  13. ^ a b "Svend Robinson leaves home"., April 19, 2007.
  14. ^ "Svend Robinson Honoured by Conseil Quebecois des Gais et Lesbiennes for Human Rights Work". States News Service  – via HighBeam (subscription required) . October 20, 2009. Retrieved 23 February 2014. 
  15. ^ a b "The legacy of Svend Robinson: book excerpt". Vancouver Sun, September 14, 2013.

External links

  • Svend Robinson's website
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