Having been in office since the late 1970s, Svend is most notable for having been the first MP to come out as gay. Although faced with homophobia from other members of the House of Commons, he has since been followed by Bloc Québécois MP Réal Ménard, fellow New Democrat Libby Davies, and Liberal MP Scott Brison.
Svend is also a committed activist. He was involved in the First Nations land claims standoff at 100 Mile House; fighting for the right of Sue Rodriguez to receive assisted suicide; the anti-logging protests at Clayoquot Sound; and the protests against the FTAA during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001.
He remains one of the NDP's most popular MPs. He is particularly popular in his own riding due to the above-average level of activity of his community offices. He has been strongly involved in the New Politics Initiative in the NDP's renewal process, although he remained committed to the party after the NPI's near miss at the 2001 general convention in Winnipeg.