Last month federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler expressed concern that opponents of the Liberal government’s same-sex marriage legislation were receiving big bucks from rightwing groups in the US.
“I just would like to maintain the integrity of the Canadian political culture and the Canadian political debate and not see it skewered by the kinds of lobbying that comes from the States,” Cotler told reporters in Ottawa. “We don’t want the public opinion to get mortgaged to the highest bidder.”
Financial reports available on-line show that the Canadian arm of Focus On The Family (FOTF), based in Langley, BC, received a total of $1.6 million since 2000 from its Colorado-based head office. The Catholic men’s group The Knights Of Columbus’ international headquarters in New Haven, Connecticut provided $80,000 to print postcards sent to MPs denouncing the legislation.
“The Canadian media is being carpet-bombed by advertising,” says Alex Munter of Canadians For Equal Marriage. “We have no idea how much US money is flowing across the border and most of it is quite shadowy.”
But both sides agree that money only goes so far. “This is the kind of battle that will be decided by the citizens of Canada letting their elected representatives know how they feel, not by who spends the most money,” says Patrick Korten, Knights’ head-office spokesperson. “If you’re looking at money spent in the campaign, you’re looking in the wrong place.”
FOTF’s advocacy comes in the form of TV ads that portray moderate, “reasonable” people who draw the line at same-sex marriage. The organization has also bought five-minute radio broadcasts on 100 stations across Canada.
“We are very careful to ensure that no more than the legally allowable 10 percent of our budget is spent on political activities,” FOTF president Terrance Rolston said in a statement to supporters last month. Under the Income Tax Act, a charity cannot spend more than 10 percent of its budget on political activities.
Although neither organization has broken the law in accepting funds from the US, Canadian equal marriage groups are nonetheless rattled by their opponents’ financial might.
US influence on issues of sexual diversity in Canada is nothing new. “Canadian religious conservative ministers and pastors have been connected to American groups and they’ve picked up the letters and brochures available south of the border,” says David Rayside, a U of T professor who is writing a book comparing conservative religious movements in Canada and the US.
But Rayside says the amount of money spent doesn’t tell the full story. “The [religious right’s] power doesn’t come from money thrown into campaigning. It comes primarily from an organization’s ability to generate mail. Their constituents are religious conservatives who attend church at least once a week and are standing in front of a religious leader whom they respect. There’s no other activist movement around that has that advantage.”
In addition to well-known groups such as FOTF, billboards and newspaper ads have been popping up across the country attributed to obscure organizations such as Concerned Canadian Parents, which took out a pricey full-page ad in The Globe thanking “pro-family MPs.” The only contact information provided for the organization was a PO box located in a 7-Eleven store on Weston Rd.
“We don’t even have the budget to advertise in the gay press let alone in national newspapers,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director for national lobby group Egale Canada. FOTF’s resources (total revenue for 2003 was approximately $9.6 million) dwarf Egale’s 2004 annual budget of about $538,000.
Egale – which doesn’t qualify as a registered charity because it does political work – does accept donations from international sources. Two years ago, an anonymous US donor gave them $35,000. Egale has received only two other donations like it and that’s about as “high end” as it gets, Marchildon says.
But unlike FOTF or the Knights – which are registered charities – all of Egale’s money can be used toward advocacy work.
In at least one instance in the past, religious conservatives succeeded in turning the tide against a queer rights bill. In 1994, Bob Rae’s NDP Ontario government introduced legislation that would’ve recognized same-sex relationships as equal to heterosexual common-law relationships.
“A number of NDP were scared and a lot of conservative organizing was one of the many factors,” says Rayside.
Although the conservative organizing is much bigger today, Munter says this massive mobilization isn’t as intimidating.
“In 1994, it felt very much like the lesbian and gay community was on its own. This time a very broad swath of Canadian society has stepped up to the plate and is standing with us.”