The question nagged Andrew Scheer for the entire election campaign—two months of deflection and avoidance. And on November 6, fresh from his first caucus meeting and just weeks after his loss to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, the Leader of the Opposition stepped out to a throng of reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and faced it once again: “Do you believe that being gay is a sin?”
By that point, Scheer had the dance fully choreographed—the tiptoeing around his personal views, the dip into party stances, the impassioned promise to support equality. “We made it very clear during the election… that our party is inclusive,” he said. “My personal commitment to Canadians is to always fight for the rights of all Canadians, including LGBT Canadians.” Behind him, a roar of applause and enthusiastic nods from Conservative party members, ardent supporters of the leader. Scheer flashed his trademark smirk, his cheeks dimpled.
As far as the public record is concerned, Scheer’s current personal beliefs about marriage equality and the rights of LGBTQ2 people remain a mystery. He has refused to recant his past anti-gay comments from 2005, during the Civil Marriage Act debates in the House of Commons, which resurfaced during this year’s federal election. He’s repeatedly declined to discuss whether his own views have changed, pointing instead to the evolution of his party on the issue and his commitment not to re-open debates about marriage equality. And when asked whether he’d march in a Pride parade (he’s never done so), he deflected the query and promised to support LGBTQ2 Canadians in other wishy-washy ways.
By now, Scheer’s non-answers are answers in themselves. A lack of overt support for gay rights has begun to look synonymous with being anti-gay—and it’s a position Scheer refuses to remove himself from, dodging conversations about LGBTQ2 issues as coolly as he can. Canadians—and not just queer ones—have taken notice: For every misstep Liberal leader Trudeau made leading up to and during this past election—situations the Conservative leader capitalized on—Scheer’s own unwillingness to support queer communities was used against him in contrast to the LGBTQ2-friendly Trudeau. As much as Scheer tried to change the conversation to the SNC-Lavalin scandal or to Trudeau’s history of wearing blackface, he was continually redirected to his own views on Pride and marriage equality.
In the Conservative loss—in an election that was, from its outset, theirs to lose—Scheer has revealed himself as part of an ever-decreasing minority of social conservatives who fail to accept LGBTQ2 people in a country that no longer wants to debate their rights. Three-quarters of Canadians support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 survey by polling firm Research Co., and queerness has become increasingly embedded in the fabric of our nation. LGBTQ2 communities have become a stronger and more visible force in our society, creating legal and political change that would have been unimaginable even just a few decades ago. If the events of the past two months are any indication, Scheer will be this country’s last anti-gay Conservative—or politician of any stripe—vying for the prime minister’s seat.
Scheer began his political career as a Conservative MP in the Saskatchewan riding of Regina–Qu’Appelle in 2004, when he was 25; seven years later, he became Speaker of the House in Stephen Harper’s government. He remained an unassuming Parliamentary force—often criticized by the opposition for his unwillingness to step in during heated debates—until Harper lost the 2015 election. When the former PM stepped down from his post, Scheer began his bid for the Conservative leadership. Dubbed Harper 2.0, he held personal politics not unlike those of his predecessor: He was socially conservative on issues like abortion (he’s against it), and he was especially cagey about gay rights, despite having been a vocal opponent of marriage equality during debates over the Civil Marriage Act.
But his decision to run for party leader prompted tough questions about his personal beliefs. In a September 2016 interview on CBC’s Power and Politics with Rosemary Barton, Scheer stumbled when asked about his personal stance on marriage equality. “I have my own personal beliefs and faith background,” he said. “People have their own personal views on things.”
The response didn’t seem to match the Conservatives’ new tone. Just four months earlier, the party decided to shift its position on gay marriage at its annual convention. In May 2016, Conservatives voted in an overwhelming majority to change the party’s definition of marriage from that of a union between a man and a woman to include same-sex couples. For rank-and-file members who found the stance on gay marriage to be outdated—gay marriage had, after all, been legal in Canada for more than a decade by then, and the party was home to several gay politicians—the vote signified a new direction: The party was making way for more progressive social politics.
That shift first began with Harper, who took the reins as Leader of the Opposition in 2004. His position: Instead of actively opposing progressive social issues like gay marriage, it was time to be more passive. He would stay mum on these issues, even if he didn’t agree with marriage equality or abortion—anything to not alienate potential Conservative voters, who might like the party’s fiscal policies but also lean more progressive on social ones. “It was a reconciliatory position,” says University of Alberta professor of political science Frédéric Boily—and one that would garner far more votes, especially in more socially liberal provinces like Quebec.
It’s why, Boily says, Scheer was an odd selection for leader in 2017—the choice seemed to defy the party’s progress. To attract a greater voter base—and a younger voter base, at that—a social conservative who couldn’t openly discuss issues like gay marriage and abortion seemed out of place, especially when put up against a voracious debater and vocal LGBTQ2 ally like Trudeau. Perhaps sensing this, the Liberals moved in on Scheer: In August this year, just before the official federal election campaign began and as Ottawa celebrated Pride, former minister of public safety Ralph Goodale tweeted a video from the 2005 Civil Marriage Act debate, in which Scheer compares gay unions to dog tails and notes that same-sex couples lack the “inherent features” of marriage, like the biological procreation of children. The reaction from LGBTQ2 people and allies was swift, and Scheer’s failure to respond with an apology for his past remarks made headlines as the summer came to a close. (Goodale, it should be noted, also opposed marriage equality in 2005, as did many other Liberals at the time.)
To be a leader for all Canadians, the Conservative Party leader should now end his lifelong boycott of Pride events and explain whether he would still deny same-sex couples the right to marry, as he said in Parliament. pic.twitter.com/5WEyja6Ov5
— Ralph Goodale (@RalphGoodale) August 22, 2019
And yet, by the time the actual campaign crept up in September, Trudeau was still floundering over the SNC-Lavalin ethics scandal, and Scheer found himself the frontrunner. Scheer’s odds kept getting better: Just one week into the election, a Time magazine story led Trudeau to admit to dressing up in blackface on multiple occasions—once in high school during a talent show performance, and again as a teacher at a private Vancouver high school.
Scheer should’ve taken the lead in the polls. Instead, the race remained neck and neck. And questions for Scheer, not just Trudeau, kept coming. On the popular Quebec talk show Tout le monde en parle, Scheer was pressed on his personal views, stating that he would love and support his children if they came out as queer. At another one-on-one interview with CBC’s Rosemary Barton, Scheer was again prompted: “How have your personal views on homosexuality evolved?” During the national English-language debate, Trudeau also dug in: “You’ve dismissed LGBT people. You haven’t apologized for your words against LGBT Canadians… will you recognize and apologize for that?”
For better or for worse, no one could stop talking about the Conservative leader and gay rights.
Even though he lost the election in October, Scheer and his party picked up an additional 23 seats—the biggest gain of any party since 2015. Yet his job remains precarious, his fate to be sealed at an April 2020 leadership review. And concerns about his personal politics—and the values a leader should hold—have only grown more impassioned, from both inside and outside of the party.
This month, Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais left the Conservative caucus, citing his frustration with Scheer’s unshakeable views on same-sex marriage. The same week, Conservatives Melissa Lantsman and Jamie Ellerton (who was among Scheer’s 2019 campaign spokespeople) penned an op-ed for the Globe and Mail urging the party to move forward on LGBTQ2 rights—a thinly veiled call for Scheer to either open up about his personal views or step aside for the benefit of the Conservative movement. “Convincing a rightfully skeptical electorate that the current iteration of the Conservative Party has grown in its thinking is particularly difficult when they are casting moral aspersions—purposefully or not—on LGBTQ Canadians,” Lantsman and Ellerton wrote. “Suggesting begrudging tolerance for marriage equality is now too far-removed from what the majority of Canadians believe.”
It’s a sentiment shared by politicos and party members alike: If Scheer can’t change the channel on his personal politics, there may not be room for him as a Conservative leader—because the Conservatives cannot win any future election if they hold on to such socially conservative views.
For a majority of Canadians, certain queer and trans rights are issues of the distant past. Most Canadians support gay marriage, and as political advisor Scott Reid has put it, no other social issue has had such an immediate and strong flip in public support than marriage equality. In a survey from the Angus Reid Institute released this week, 69 percent of respondents said a politician’s views on issues like same-sex marriage would affect how they vote. The country has also moved quickly on other LGBTQ2 issues, such as the legal protection of trans rights (even though the legislation isn’t overwhelmingly popular) and the dismantling of conversion therapy organizations for minors.
According to Angus Reid, progressive voters make up the majority of the electorate, and research has found that lesbian, gay and bisexual Canadians are far more politically involved than their straight counterparts. LGBTQ2 folks living in Canada have moved on to bigger, more pressing issues to champion, like the improvement of access to life-saving and gender-affirming healthcare for trans Canadians and the need for shelter for queer and trans homeless youth. As RM Vaughan puts it, most queer and trans folks found this election’s discussion of the nearly 15-year-old marriage debate exhausting.
This fixation by Conservative opponents on gay marriage seemed to instead be positioned for the reaction of non-queer, progressive allies. “Scheer failed to persuade progressive voters that his party and he personally would reflect the sensibilities of most Canadians on the issue of same-sex marriage,” Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, says. “[It was] an issue that may have produced enough of a chill toward the Conservative Party among centrist voters in places where it mattered, such as the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver.”
It was also the first time gay rights made such a blatant appearance throughout an election campaign, as far as Manon Tremblay can recall. The professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa and editor of Queering Representation: LGBTQ People and Electoral Politics in Canada says it suggests a changing tide in Canada, where queer rights have become central to our country’s identity as a progressive nation. Canadians pride themselves on being an open and accepting counterpart to the melting pot that is the U.S., for example. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 80 percent of Canadians believe society should accept homosexuality—ranking behind only Spain and Germany. And anecdotally, Pride parades across Canada have become centrepieces of the summer, with straight allies—including the prime minister—joining in on the festivities. Many LGBTQ2 people, Manon adds, are party members and representatives of all stripes—including the only non-incumbent gay MP elected this year, Ontario Conservative Eric Duncan. To ignore a large faction of voters who are queer or queer-positive seems illogical, she says.
To Tremblay, it’s clear Canadians want something new from the Conservatives. And if the party decides to keep Scheer on board, or bring in another social conservative as leader, she says “they will show they know nothing about Canadians.”
In many ways, Scheer’s run for the prime minister’s office was a litmus test for the country: Just how far right can a leader lean in 2019 when it comes to social issues? At a time when many progressive Canadians, especially queer and trans ones, fear a resurgence of far-right powers (look no further than Jair Bolsonaro’s takeover in once gay-friendly Brazil, or the rising power of deeply religious, anti-gay conservatives in the U.S.) could someone as dodgy about his view of queer people truly run the country?
Political junkies seem fixated on the question of whether or not Scheer will survive April’s leadership review. But such a question is only the beginning of a much more complicated conversation about the state of Canadian politics and LGBTQ2 people—and, more specifically, about the current values and future direction of the Conservative Party. If Scheer or another socially conservative politician leads the party, the message will be clear: LGBTQ2 people, and their progressive allies, are not a priority for the Conservatives.
But this election, in which Scheer and his party lost, voters decided—albeit not overwhelmingly—that these communities do matter. A potential prime minister represents the country—when his or her values stray too far from the status quo, the country will aptly respond.
It also raises questions about attitudes toward other marginalized communities. Would such pointed views on immigrants, refugees, communities of colour or religious minorities have caused the same uproar? In 2015, for instance, Scheer’s predecessors pledged to launch a “barbaric cultural practices tip line” via the RCMP, and still managed to receive 31.9 percent of the vote (by comparison, the Liberals won with 39.5 percent). For all of the movement to further queer rights, there is still a long way to go for the rights of other minority communities.
As far as Manon Tremblay is concerned, the Conservative Party might not survive such a decision to ignore queer people as vehemently as Scheer has this past election. If he stays on as leader, and he’s unable to speak out in support of LGBTQ2 rights, the party might combust. Social conservatives and Red Tories could go their separate ways—a reversal of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative merger 16 years ago. Such a separation would say more about the values Canadians uphold than it does about big-tent party politics: Leaders like Scheer just aren’t viable options anymore. Frédéric Boily puts it bluntly: “It’s the end of the era of social conservative leaders.”
As has been tradition for the past few months, commentary on gay marriage continues to circulate the media. After meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau on Nov. 22, Ontario Premier Doug Ford fielded questions from reporters about whether the federal Conservative leader needs to address Canadians about gay rights and issues. “That’s going to be for Andrew Scheer to decide,” Ford told the press.
Indeed, it will be up to Scheer to figure how the next step in his intricate dance routine. Will he ever admit where he falls on the issue of queer rights? Will he have a sudden change of heart and embrace LGBTQ2 communities? Or will he stubbornly remain silent?
No matter his decision, most of the experts interviewed for this story suggested that by April, Conservatives will have voted to find a new leader—someone whose personal politics won’t overshadow the core values the party wants Canadians to focus on, like economic stability and the role of the state in society. As Boily says, these values are far more palatable for the party, and appeal more successfully to moderates.
In the end, Scheer himself will have to reconcile with the harshest reality of all: In all of his years-long attempts to dodge questions about it, gay marriage could be the issue that ends up defining his political legacy.