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Conservative Party promises law defining marriage

Pleas for moderate party fall on deaf ears

MONTREAL – It’s official now: if they come to power, the Conservative Party will pass a law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The policy was approved by a three-to-one margin last weekend at the Montreal founding policy convention of the party formed in 2003 from a merger of the Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives.

Despite a passionate plea on the convention floor from Belinda Stronach, one of four Conservative MPs who favour same-sex marriage equality, delegates backed party leader Stephen Harper’s stand opposing gay marriage rights.

Stronach pitched an “inclusive” and moderate party to delegates in the same-sex marriage vote. Former Tory MP Elsie Wayne, a long-time foe of gay rights, spoke for a “traditional” definition of marriage – and her perspective clearly resonated with delegates.

Another opponent told the delegates, “There’s right and wrong, not right and popular.”

In the end, the majority of delegates in every province except tiny PEI voted in lockstep with Wayne and Harper.

Gay Tories are putting a positive spin on it. A predicted walkout of delegates after the same-sex vote failed to materialize. They’re choosing party over principle.

“No one can deny we’re moving in the right direction,” says Vancouver gay Conservative Gary Mitchell. He expected to get a lot less than the 25 percent of the party who voted against the traditional definition of marriage.

“I have to keep working from within,” says Mitchell, who is strongly drawn to the party for its free-enterprise economic policies. “Nobody can agree with every single policy of a party.”

Mitchell was the only out gay Conservative Party candidate in the 2004 federal election. He challenged Liberal Hedy Fry for Vancouver Centre riding, and spoke out against anti-gay election rhetoric.

On the eve of the Montreal convention, he formed Conservatives for Equal Marriage, which shares the initials CEM with the more established gay lobby group, Canadians for Equal Marriage. The Conservative group has 20 steering committee members and more than 100 endorsements on its website. Mitchell says he got a lot of positive feedback from party members after forming the group. It demonstrated to Canadians that the party had diversity, he suggests.

Mitchell thinks leader Harper will not follow through on the commitment made in his Friday night televised speech to immediately define marriage as between a man and a woman if the party comes to power.

“Canadians are not prepared to see the use of the notwithstanding Clause or a constitutional amendment on this issue,” says Mitchell. Gay conservatives and their supporters will continue fighting party policy until full equality is recognized, he pledges.

A young gay Conservative echoes Mitchell.

“I’m upset at the direction, but it wasn’t unexpected,” says 17-year-old Craig Stevens, a gay delegate from Chatham/Kent-Essex. “My comfort comes from the fact [same-sex marriage equality is] the law now in this country. Legal scholars say [Stephen Harper] can’t change it without using the notwithstanding clause. I don’t think our party would get behind that.”

Stevens isn’t thinking of leaving the party anytime soon. “We’ve shown we do have some progressive inklings in this party by passing a motion to not touch abortion. How I change things is to stay with the party.”

And Stevens says the free-market orientation of the party is what fundamentally draws him to it.

The Conservatives tried to spin the convention as moving the party toward the centre. And at first glance, there’s evidence for it. The average age of delegates was more than a decade younger than previous Reform/Alliance pow-wows – and reportedly younger even than the recent Liberal convention. As well, the vitriol against gays, immigrants, bilingualism and social programs that dominated past conventions of the Reform Party were missing. And delegates were disciplined and tight-mouthed in avoiding comments to media.

One delegate that questioned French on cereal boxes was roundly booed during the policy session.

And the party won the headlines it badly wanted after making it official policy to not revisit Canada’s abortion laws if it attains power. “Tories give up fight against abortion,” trumpeted the Ottawa Citizen on Sun, Mar 20. Said the pro-Liberal Toronto Star: “party veers to middle.” But a closer look shows that even on the abortion issue, the party’s policies continue to be dominated by the views of the largely Western Canadian former members of the Reform and Alliance parties. And Harper has surrounded himself with advisors from that faction.

The abortion policy does not prevent Conservative MPs from voting in favour of a private member’s bill to outlaw reproductive choice. And it also allows free reign for the party to encourage the de-listing of abortion procedures from coverage under health plans.

And then there are the other policies. Attempts by Quebec delegates to move the party toward the middle on social and economic subsidies were rebuffed by other delegates early – at the first day’s policy workshops.

On the other hand, the party’s policies now include:

* raising the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14;
* eliminating all defences against child porn, something that would probably ultimately require the use of the notwithstanding clause;
* politicizing the appointment of Supreme Court of Canada judicial appointments;
* increasing private sector health care;
* opposing universal child-care; transferring fiscal spending power to the provinces, curtailing the role of the federal government in social policy;
* “three strikes and you’re out” criminal sentencing;
* negotiating with the US for a missile-defence agreement;
* opposing the Kyoto accord on global warming;
* a massive increase in defence spending; and,
* adding property rights to the Constitution, a move that would undermine the ability of government to protect the environment.

And the party voted down allowing an official youth wing. Opponents simultaneously argued that a youth group would be powerless and having nothing to do and also that it would be a threat to party values and shift the Conservatives to the political middle. (Seconds after the vote, Young Liberal observers distributed flyers. “Dear Young Conservatives, The Conservative Party of Canada has just denied you a voice. Do not despair. You can join a party that allows you the right to be heard.”)

But the issue that most viscerally connected to delegates was same-sex marriage. On the whole, participants were disciplined, low-key and lethargic.

With one major exception: on Friday night, when leader Stephen Harper told the convention that he would end same-sex marriage soon after the Tories come to power.

“The only time there was real energy in the room, that people were really connected, was when they were saying, ‘Let’s kick the fags,'” says Alex Munter, co-chair of the lobby group Canadians for Equal Marriage.