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Bill Graham reflects on 23 years in office

Same-sex marriage vote among career highlights

HE'S OUT. Fourteen years after he was first elected as MP for Toronto Centre, Bill Graham announced his retirement from politics. Credit: Rob Salerno photo

Toronto Centre MP Bill Graham announced his retirement from politics in the House Of Commons on Jun 19.

Graham first ran for Parliament in 1984 but lost twice before he was elected in 1993. As a vocal advocate for queer issues and as MP for one of Canada’s most diverse ridings, Graham leaves big shoes to fill.

“We have the gay and lesbian community, but you also have a huge immigrant population,” he told Xtra on Jun 28. “In the wealthy part of the riding people are concerned about lots of other issues. One of the challenges was reconciling the diversity of those views, but one of the great successes is that when you bring those people together you get the best of what Canada is about.”

One of the most divisive issues in which Graham found himself embroiled was the battle for same-sex marriage.

“When we stood in the house and had the second vote on civil marriage… which was directly a question of human rights and recognition, and I had worked very hard on that the whole time, that was certainly for me my proudest accomplishment as an MP,” says Graham. “I was very proud of some of my friends within the party who were totally opposed to this idea at the beginning and who, the second time around, said ‘I’m voting for it, we have to say this is done and let’s move on.'”

While Graham offers praise for his colleagues who changed their minds, he is reluctant to criticize other retiring Liberals who opposed the same-sex marriage legislation.

“Tom [Wappel, Scarborough Southwest] was never going to change his mind and Joe [Comuzzi, Thunder Bay-Superior North] clearly wasn’t,” recalls Graham. “Joe [Comuzzi] of course has gone over to the Conservatives. That’s a form of purgatory, not retirement,” laughs Graham of Comuzzi’s Jun 26 announcement that he would cross the floor.

Despite the disastrous results of last year’s election for the Liberals, Graham says he has no regrets about the party’s decision to make same-sex marriage an election issue.

“I think we were right to campaign on that issue,” he says. “I think it was a dangerous thing for Mr Martin to do because in some parts of the country you’re not going to win any votes on that. On the other hand, we were told, ‘This is dangerous for you Bill. There are conservative parts of your riding, an Islamic population…. You’re going to lose those votes.'”

Graham boasts of the progress that the queer community made in the most recent years of Liberal rule, but he concedes that some queer Canadians continue to be marginalized and left behind.

“All social progress is not overnight, but if you look at what goes on in other countries, if you look at the United States and what they call the culture wars, the progress we made in the last 12 years has been phenomenal,” he says. “When we were elected in 1993, there was nothing in the human rights code, in the criminal code. There were no pension rights, and if anybody had thought of equal marriage, anybody would have thought that was an impossible dream. Really, it’s all come to pass in the last 12 years. It’s incredible.”

While many out queers have been elected to Parliament and even appointed to cabinet, none have represented the ridings with the largest concentrations of queer constituents: Toronto Centre and Vancouver Centre. Graham says that’s because Canadians tend to care more about candidates’ politics than their personal lives.

“If you look at US politics, it’s all about pointing at people’s private lives and looking for some reason to demonize the other person,” he says. “In Canadian politics there’s some of that because there’s always some negativity in politics, but there isn’t a lot. People are genuinely interested in this country in your politics. They’re not interested in your private life as long as your private life and your public life are consistent.”

Graham’s own personal life has been a subject of gossip and speculation in numerous magazines over the years, and he has always refused to comment on it directly.

“When I became foreign minister I said, ‘The Prime Minister, my wife, my family and all my supporters and friends know all about my private life and I have nothing to hide from anybody and I don’t see any need to discuss it further,'” he says firmly. “There was nothing that I did in my public life that was inconsistent with my private life. I never voted any way in the House Of Commons or took a position on any issue which would have been inconsistent or betrayed my principles in any way and I think that’s what people want to know.”

In retirement, Graham plans to continue to work part time on various boards and as chancellor of Trinity College at the University Of Toronto. He also plans to remain active in the Liberal party.

“I’ll be there for the party,” he says. “If I can do something, I’ll do it.”