Svend Robinson

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Svend Robinson
Svend Robinson.jpg
Svend Robinson at the January 2003 NDP convention in Toronto, Ontario
Member of Parliament for Burnaby
In office
Preceded byRiding established
Succeeded byRiding dissolved
Member of Parliament for Burnaby—Kingsway
In office
Preceded byRiding established
Succeeded byRiding dissolved
Member of Parliament for Burnaby—Douglas
In office
Preceded byRiding established
Succeeded byBill Siksay
Personal details
Born (1952-03-04) March 4, 1952 (age 68)
Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
Political partyNew Democratic Party
  • Patricia Fraser (1972–1975)
  • Max Riveron (1994–present)

Svend Robinson (born March 4, 1952) is a Canadian politician. He was a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1979 to 2004, who represented suburban Vancouver-area constituencies of Burnaby for the New Democratic Party (NDP). He is noted as the first member of Parliament in Canadian history to come out as gay while in office.[1] In 2004, he pled guilty to stealing an expensive ring and decided not to run in the June 2004 election. At the time, he was one of the longest-serving members in the House of Commons, having been elected and re-elected for seven consecutive terms. In the 2019 Canadian federal election, Robinson was the NDP candidate for the riding of Burnaby North-Seymour, but lost to the Liberal incumbent Terry Beech by 1,560 votes.

Early life[edit]

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 called to the British Columbia 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 NDP 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, Robinson is notable for having been the first Canadian MP to come out as gay, in the spring of 1988.[3] He was the only openly LGBT member of the Canadian House of Commons until Bloc Québécois MP Réal Ménard came out in 1994.

Robinson is known for his negative views on American foreign policy, especially towards Cuba, his challenge of corporate power, his 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.[4]

One of his earliest political activities was leading a group of NDP MPs who heckled former US President Ronald Reagan while he was speaking at the House of Commons in support of the Strategic Defense Initiative and aid to the Contras. He was a long-time activist in the anti-apartheid movement and was a member of the official Canadian delegation to the 1994 South African election. Robinson has also been critical of the Chinese government for its treatment of political dissidents and for its policies in Tibet. He was a founder of the Canadian wing of Parliamentarians for East Timor. He was active in international parliamentary groups, including serving as rapporteur and chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly Human Rights and Development Committee.[2]

Robinson was a leader in the movement for the right to physician-assisted death, 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.[5]

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.[6] For the latter action, he was sentenced to 14 days of imprisonment.[6] 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. He won the first ballot, and had won regional primaries in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. However, he felt that he could not win on the second ballot as last-place candidate Lorne Nystrom's delegates were moving disproportionately to Alexa McDonough rather than Robinson. Realizing that McDonough would likely pick up enough support from Nystrom's delegates to eliminate any realistic chance of him winning, Robinson pulled out of the race and conceded to McDonough before the second ballot. On a motion by Robinson, McDonough was acclaimed as leader.[7]

On December 31, 1997, Robinson was injured in a hiking accident on Galiano Island, breaking his jaw and ankle.[8]

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,[9] 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.[10] 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[edit]

In April 2004, shortly before the 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 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.[11] He terminated his candidacy and was replaced by his longtime constituency assistant Bill Siksay, who won the election.[12]

Robinson was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder, and began to speak as an activist on mental health issues.[13][14]

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.[11] 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.

In the 2019 Canadian General Election Robinson was nominated as the NDP candidate in Burnaby North Seymour, he faced Liberal incumbent Terry Beech. Robinson lost by 1,560 votes to the Liberal incumbent.

Post-political career[edit]

Since leaving politics, Robinson was employed by the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union as an arbitrator and advocate.[15] 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,[15] where he moved with his partner Max Riveron. 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.[16]

He served as a consultant with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, coordinating their parliamentary relations.[1] He retired from the organization when he reached its mandatory retirement age of 65.

Robinson is set to join Simon Fraser University for the 2020-2021 academic year as the J.S. Woodsworth Resident Scholar, a position named after the former CCF MP J.S. Woodsworth.[17]

Return to politics[edit]

On January 15, 2019, Robinson announced he would be returning to politics and running as the NDP candidate for the riding of Burnaby North-Seymour in the 2019 federal election.[18] He finished second in a close race.[19]

Electoral History[edit]

2019 Canadian federal election: Burnaby North—Seymour
Party Candidate Votes % ±% Expenditures
Liberal Terry Beech 17,770 35.5 -0.59
New Democratic Svend Robinson 16,185 32.3 +2.69
Conservative Heather Leung 9,734 19.4 -8.44
Green Amita Kuttner 4,801 9.6 +4.33
People's Rocky Dong 1,079 2.2
Independent Robert Taylor 271 0.5
Libertarian Lewis Dahlby 219 0.4 -0.08
Total valid votes/Expense limit 50,059 100.0
Total rejected ballots 466
Turnout 50,525 65.4
Eligible voters 77,301
Liberal hold Swing -1.64
Heather Leung was dropped by the Conservative Party of Canada after past homophobic remarks were made public,[20] but still appeared on the ballot papers.
Source: Elections Canada[21][19]


Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, written by Graeme Truelove, was released on October 17, 2013, by New Star Books.[22] 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.[22]

Awards and honours[edit]

  • 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. ^ "30 years after Canada's first MP came out, LGBT politicians still face challenges". 2018-02-24. Retrieved 2019-10-21.
  4. ^ "NDP demotes Robinson because of 'misperception'". CBC News, April 18, 2002.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ a b "Twenty years later, the "War in the Woods" at Clayoquot Sound still reverberates across B.C.". Global News, August 11, 2013.
  7. ^ Windsor, Hugh (1995-10-16). "Second fiddle leads NDP: McDonough wins, Robinson gives in". The Globe and Mail. Toronto: CTVglobemedia. pp. A1, A5.
  8. ^ "Svend Robinson has surgery after hiking accident". CBC News, January 1, 1998.
  9. ^ David Mutimer, Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs 2001. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-9235-9.
  10. ^ "MPs vote to protect gays under hate law". CBC News, September 18, 2003.
  11. ^ a b "Svend Robinson Running in Election". Maclean's, December 19, 2005.
  12. ^ "MP Svend Robinson admits theft, takes stress leave". CBC News. 16 April 2004. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
  13. ^ "Svend Robinson speaks out about illness". CBC News, October 26, 2005.
  14. ^ Moreau, Jennifer (November 5, 2013). "Svend Robinson biography reveals the man behind the image". Burnaby Now. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  15. ^ a b "Svend Robinson leaves home" Archived 2014-05-12 at the Wayback Machine., April 19, 2007.
  16. ^ "Svend Robinson Honoured by Conseil Quebecois des Gais et Lesbiennes for Human Rights Work". States News Service  – via HighBeam (subscription required). October 20, 2009. Archived from the original on June 11, 2014. Retrieved 23 February 2014.
  17. ^ Dickert, Chris. "Former MP Svend Robinson to join SFU as J.S. Woodsworth Resident Scholar - SFU News - Simon Fraser University". SFU News. Retrieved 2020-07-29.
  18. ^ Jan 15, CBC News · Posted; January 15, 2019 11:55 AM PT | Last Updated. "Svend Robinson attempting another political comeback | CBC News". CBC. Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  19. ^ a b "Election Night Results". Elections Canada. Retrieved November 16, 2019.
  20. ^ Baker, Rafferty (3 October 2019). "Conservatives eject B.C. candidate over 'offensive' comments about LGBTQ people". CBC News. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
  21. ^ "List of confirmed candidates". Elections Canada. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  22. ^ a b "The legacy of Svend Robinson: book excerpt". Vancouver Sun, September 14, 2013.

External links[edit]