There as a Rhodes Scholar studying philosophy, politics and economics, Boissonnault also took up German and Spanish, rowing and ice hockey — all while making sure to be far away from his college, Corpus Christi, one evening a week.
Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault speaks in the House of Commons on June 13, 2016. (Photo: Aridan Wyld/The Canadian Press)
That was the night a campus pride group held its meetings, and Boissonnault, who was in the closet at the time, found it too close for comfort.
"I thought if I came out, I wouldn't have any career prospects," Boissonnault, 46, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"I wouldn't be loved. I would lose my family and my friends and it would be a big, dark, scary hole."
Coming home to Canada in 1996, it was as if the world was shifting, he recalled. There were gay role models in politics and popular culture. Soon, benefits were extended to same-sex couples and then, eventually, marriage was too.
"To see all the change that has happened in my lifetime and to see how far we've come as a country and as a people is really amazing," said Boissonnault, who was elected to represent the riding of Edmonton Centre in 2015.
"I thought if I came out, I wouldn't have any career prospects. I wouldn't be loved."
There is more work to do, both at home and abroad.
As the special adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on LGBTQ2 issues, Boissonnault has been working with advocacy groups to promote equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited people — a term used broadly to describe indigenous people who identify as part of the community.
Boissonnault is a member of the Liberal indigenous caucus and identifies as "non-status adoptive Cree," a heritage traced back to a maternal great-grandmother in the family that adopted him.
That role of special adviser, which Boissonnault took on last November, now also has some support.
Support in federal budget
The 2017 federal budget committed $3.6 million over three years to set up and support an LGBTQ2 secretariat within the Privy Council Office.
One part of that job is to better co-ordinate the machinery of government so that policies are not blind to sexual orientation and gender diversity.
Boissonnault said he saw that happen when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced last year the federal government had revamped a program that covers up to 50 per cent of the costs for places of worship, schools and community centres to beef up their security in response to real or anticipated threats.
Boissonnault said when the leader of a pride centre asked him whether they would be eligible for the funding, he had to go and check with Goodale's office to find out that yes, they would be.
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"Because we didn't say LGBTQ2 communities in there, the community didn't know," said Boissonnault, who is also a member of the Liberal indigenous caucus, tracing his identity back to a maternal great-grandmother in the family that adopted him.
He said viewing policy through this lens has led to other recent decisions, such as expanding a federal tax credit for fertility-related medical expenses to include those who rely on the use of reproductive technology to have families but are not necessarily considered medically infertile, such as same-sex couples.
As he looks to the future, Boissonnault is also being reminded of the past: he has also been tasked with exploring an apology to LGBTQ2 people whose lives and careers were harmed by discriminatory government policies over the decades.
That was the top recommendation in a report from the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust last June, and nearly a year later, advocates have been expressing frustration with the slow pace. Asked for an update, Boissonnault said only that he continues to listen and learn.
"We have to get this right for the Canadian context and to make sure that once we do have an apology, that it is broadly accepted by members of the community," he said.
The role also involves looking to the rest of the world, where in many countries, LGBTQ2 people are still fighting for survival — including in Chechnya, where there are ongoing reports of gay and bisexual men being detained and killed.
Canada can play a role, said Boissonnault, such as working behind the scenes at the Commonwealth, where 36 of 52 member nations still criminalize homosexual activity in some way. But he's urging a cautious approach.
"We can't simply come in waving the rainbow flag and say, 'This is how you should do things here,'" he said.