3 min

Atkinson on the campaign trail

Is being openly gay enough for Ottawa Centre?

ROUGH RIDE. As an NDP candidate, Jeff Atkinson hopes the pendulum will swing back to let him claim Ottawa Centre. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Jeff Atkinson is young, gay and wants your vote in Ottawa Centre.

The co-president of the New Democratic Party riding association in Ottawa Centre and a communications practitioner with the Canadian Labour Congress, Atkinson has thrown his hat into the ring as the NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre in the upcoming provincial election. He has been acclaimed as the party’s candidate.

Atkinson has a long history of involvement in labour and GLBT issues. After graduating from Carleton University in 1991, he found himself in the middle of a recession, became a security guard and ended up both becoming part of the movement to unionize security guards for federal buildings and spending a long time on the picket lines.

The reason for his staying in Ottawa, rather than following the path of many of his classmates and moving home, was simple.

“I’ve been in Ottawa since 1986,” says Atkinson. “I fell in love with the city, and I’ve been here ever since.

“I was also in the process of coming out (in 1991), so moving back to rural southwestern Ontario wasn’t an option.”

Working with the union as a picketer and shop steward led to working in communications with the union when he graduated from the public relations program at Algonquin College in 1997. While at Algonquin, Atkinson founded Algonquin Pride, the first GLBT group on campus.

“By the time I got to Algonquin, I was out and had a boyfriend,” explains Atkinson.

“Compared to the presence at Carleton, we were invisible. You’d hear the comments in the hallways and the jokes.”

Atkinson’s experience in organization led him to establish the group.

“This was in 1995, when it became okay in the public eye to acknowledge homosexuality. It was an exercise to provide a space, organize activities, allow people to report incidents.”

He acknowledges that, as a public relations student, it was also an excellent publicity exercise.

“It was more social, in terms of needing a place to be. When I was there, harassment was never really a problem.”

Atkinson’s experience in the labour movement has provided him with an opportunity to work on queer issues, something that will help him as a candidate.

“I’ve been able to explore queer issues in the context of the labour movement,” says Atkinson.

“The movement is really on the cutting edge of a lot of issues, like people with AIDS and transgender people in the workplace.”

Atkinson is also chair of the NDP’s LGBT committee, which he says “is there to advise on issues and to keep in touch with activist groups across the country.”

Atkinson thinks that being an openly gay candidate will be an advantage in Ottawa Centre, an area that includes Ottawa’s gay village and neighbourhoods like Westboro and Hintonburg.

“I think Capital Xtra readers would like to know there is someone openly gay, who understands the issues and can face them head-on. It’s not a stretch for me to deal with gay and lesbian issues, because they’re my issues.”

Currently, there is one out MPP at Queen’s Park, Toronto Liberal George Smitherman. Atkinson jokes that “you can’t let George have the stage to himself.”

The NDP has had a rough ride in Ottawa Centre in the last decade, both at the federal and provincial levels. Atkinson says there has been a shift in perspective now, because of privatization, health care cutbacks and housing issues.

“Times have changed,” says Atkinson. “In 1995, we lost the seat to the Liberals. But now the leader of the Opposition is from here, and he has decided that the Tourism Minister’s Scotch drinking is more important than downtown housing rates.

“The other parties don’t think rent is an issue. Last year, we introduced legislation to freeze rent, which the Tories and Liberals both voted down.”

With the majority of Ottawa Centre’s residents being tenants, Atkinson says that supporting the NDP will be an attractive option.

It seems to be the case, he adds.

“I’ve been out knocking on doors in Westboro and Hintonburg, and people are very receptive.”

Outgoing city councillor Elisabeth Arnold, whose Somerset ward covers a large section of Ottawa Centre, agrees that the times may be changing.

“It feels like the political climate has been very right of center for the last decade or so, but I feel that pendulum swinging back.”

Arnold also feels that Atkinson will be able to make things happen.

“Jeff has done great work in the past, and I think he’ll do well for Ottawa Centre.”