A new right-wing Christian group has just set up residence in Ottawa, and they have money and powerful friends.
The Institute Of Marriage And Family Canada (IMFC) opened its doors on Feb 16, and although they claim to be politically neutral, their history indicates otherwise.
Dave Quist, the institute’s executive director, used to work in Stephen Harper’s office. But he insists the IMFC is non-partisan.
“There are always hot-button social issues on the plate,” he says. “If we’d been around for 100 years we would have played a role in some of those debates. But importantly we’re here now and we’re just getting started.”
He is, however, upfront about Christian values influencing the group’s direction. “We come to the table adhering to what we call Christian values. Any group, be they a lobby group, be they a research think tank like ourselves, or an NGO or an activist group, they all come to the table with a particular viewpoint. Everyone comes to the table with a set of values and principles that they work from. But we try from a research perspective to allow pure research to come forward – quite honestly, in some cases the results might surprise us.”
But if the IMFC’s founders are anything to go by, any results supporting gay marriage, the right of gays to adopt or homosexuality in general would be a surprise.
The IMFC is backed by Focus On The Family Canada, based in Vancouver, which is the northern offshoot of the powerful American group, Focus On The Family (FOTF).
FOTF preaches that premarital sex is just plain wrong. As is the right to an abortion, the practice of euthanasia and stem cell research. Homosexuality is wrong — especially gay marriage. But spanking your children is perfectly acceptable.
These are the views of James Dobson, “America’s trusted family psychologist” and FOTF founder and leader. In 1977, Dobson, who has been called the Pope of evangelical America, founded the donation-run FOTF, now based in Colorado Springs.
His organization’s mission is to “cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and institution of the family.”
FOTF were a driving force behind George Bush’s victory in the past election. Through a new subsidiary called Focus On The Family Action, Dobson was able to campaign for Bush.
The new “cultural action organization” enables Dobson to lobby for issues like the Marriage Protection Amendment (ensuring marriage in the US remains exclusively the union of a man and a woman) using donors’ money. He was limited in what he could do with FOTF’s money because donations are tax deductible and therefore lobbying is more restricted.
He reportedly told his radio show listeners that not voting for Bush was a sin.
But Quist says Dobson has virtually nothing to do with the IMFC. “The institute is 100 percent an initiative of Focus On The Family Canada,” he says. “I’m Canadian, we work in a Canadian context in a Canadian society. The political system is different from Canada to the US. So we’re completely independent of anything in the US.”
Completely independent — aside from funding, of course. According to the Toronto Star, the US FOTF’s 2003 financial report stated that “Focus provides, without charge, the cost of certain services necessary for the operation of the Focus On The Family (Canada) Association. The value of these services for the years ending Sept 30, 2003 and 2002 was approximately $217,000 (US) and $239,000 (US) respectively.”
Quist says that the IMFC isn’t into lobbying or activism, but is dedicated to providing scientific facts and figures to MPs, senators and influential business leaders.
“We are doing our own research through experts in the field and gathering research from experts around the world on a variety of issues,” he says. “We’re not an activist group or a lobby group, but a research group that will hopefully provide the decision-makers some additional information as they go through the debate and get ready for vote or implementation.”
For example, he says, while the IMFC defines family as “being a mom and a dad and kids,” it has also come to accept the fact that though they don’t see it as desirable, single-parent households do exist.
But protestors outside the IMFC’s official kick-off at the Lord Elgin Hotel say while the group may be more subtle than its American cousins, the aim is the same.
Protest organizer Ariel Troster says the new institute is something the gay community needs to keep monitoring.
“A lot of people say they don’t think this kind of thing will really take hold in Canada and that there isn’t as strong a discriminatory fundamentalist movement,” Troster says. “But I think we have to be very wary.
“Groups like Focus On The Family have very neutral-sounding names,” she says. “And they talk in generic terms about things like family and values, and we know that those are code words. All it takes is two or three clicks on their website and you get into the really frightening stuff that they’re promoting.”
Troster says the IMFC is already very well-connected politically.
“I think now it’s our community’s job to stand firm and keep an eye on organizations like the Institute because they have tremendous influence on the inside,” she says.
Troster sees a direct link between the Conservative party and the IMFC.
“I don’t think it’s the least bit paranoid to equate a group like [the institute] with the extreme right-wing factions within the Conservative party. There’s a clear correlation.”
It’s also instructive to compare the IMFC to another Ottawa family research institute. The Vanier Institute Of The Family has been around since 1965, and has a much more inclusive definition of the word “family.” The VIF defines family as “any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following: physical maintenance and care of group members; addition of new members through procreation or adoption; socialization of children; social control of members; production, consumption, distribution of goods and services, and affective nurturance — love.”
Alan Mirabelli, executive director of the VIF, says the institute’s definition of family is inclusive because that’s what’s needed from a sociological perspective.
“We talk about families as we find them,” he says. “The whole idea was to be able to advise governments on what is, not what might be or what one might wish to have — that’s really up to those who read the research and choose to then use it. We’re not promoting a particular point of view.”