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Council motion still looms as Pride Toronto dilemma comes to a head

The struggle to define Pride may be just beginning

Participants in the 2009 Toronto Pride Parade. Credit: Nicola Betts photo

A motion to de-fund Pride will likely return to city council June 14, setting the stage for a bitter battle.

Toronto city councillor and mayoral candidate Giorgio Mammoliti says he’s pressuring Pride Toronto do “the right thing” by issuing an ultimatum on April 28: unless Queers Against Israeli Apartheid withdraws from the parade, Pride Toronto will lose all city funding and resources. 

After QuAIA called his bluff, Mammoliti introduced a motion to do just that.

The May 12 council vote on his motion punted the issue back to the executive committee, which will consider the issue on June 14th, and Mammoliti is adamant that QuAIA be stopped.

“They’re spreading hatred towards Israel,” he says, “This is hatred. Any way you look at it.”

Writer David Demchuk says Mammoliti’s crusade makes little sense, especially given yesterday’s revelation that Pride has already vowed to block QuAIA messaging at the parade.

“Obviously, he’s desperate to be noticed,” Demchuk says, “but it’s amazing what this group has been characterized as.”

Having watched QuAIA march in previous parades, Demchuk says, “They’re a motley crew holding up their little homemade signs and banners. It’s not like they’re turning flamethrowers on the crowd,” he laughs, “They are manifestly harmless.”

Harmless enough to mostly ignore, perhaps, but Mammoliti instead ramped up the rhetoric after the council meeting. He called out mayor David Miller for not addressing the Jewish community’s concerns (“He’s going to have to account for his actions”) while insisting that the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) will come under fire if they’re found to be backing QuAIA. 

In past years, QuAIA marched with the CUPE contingent.

“You’re representing workers in this city and you want to get involved in this kind of discrimination?” Mammoliti asks.

He points to CUPE Ontario’s 2006 resolution to support a boycott against Israeli apartheid.

“CUPE better not be taking this position because if they are, and I become mayor of this city, I will attempt to pull their status as a union,” he says.

This comes as a surprise to Fred Hahn, the interim President of CUPE Ontario and, as it happens, the first openly gay labour leader in the province.

“I would hope that someone who aspires to be mayor of the city would actually check his facts before making statements like that,” says Hahn. “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid is an independent organization, like the thousands of others that march in Pride.”

Hahn says CUPE is comfortable with debating if “the actions of a political state are consistent with human rights” and has always supported Pride as “a political celebration with a history of inclusion.”

Hahn says the Pride parade is, at its best, both politically left and right.

“Pride is hugely important to the sense of diversity that makes Toronto what it is, but it’s also important to the economy of the city, as we’ve seen again and again. To threaten that, or use it as a political pawn in some way, is really unacceptable.”

The QuAIA controversy, he says, is merely the latest in a long history.

“There’s always been debates,” he says, “with people not wanting to include the military or naked men or Stephen Harper but, over the years, Pride organizers have always erred on the side of inclusivity. Not everyone is going to agree but that’s what a diversity of opinion is all about.”

“I’m not finished with CUPE yet,” says Mammoliti, “but I’m going to deal with this one step at a time.”

If Pride decides to reject QuAIA, he says, “I’ll be watching to see if this group participates anyway in one fashion or another.”

“Isn’t it fascinating how we’re going to have all these people coming to Pride for the first time in their lives, all with a great deal of opinion as to what it should be?” laughs Kyle Rae, who says he worked with Mammoliti to turn his immediate vote into a deferred one. 

“Instead of us going into a discussion about what Pride will or will not do or may or may not do,” Rae says, “I was trying to get Giorgio to understand that it’s more important, I felt, for Pride to have the ability to make a decision themselves.”

But can they? Rae says it was important to convince Mammoliti to allow Pride “a window” for escape.

“We shouldn’t be punishing Pride before they’ve made a decision,” he insists, noting that this entire debate has always been technically hypothetical since QuAIA has yet to file their application to join the parade anyway. Still, in a Feb 9 email to Sandilands, Rae described QuAIA as “not in keeping with the expression of Pride,” and he hasn’t changed his mind since.

“This is a culture grant, not a political grant,” Rae says, “There are expectations that when you give money for a cultural experience, you’re not offending people.” After months of back-and-forth, Rae says city staff “are now comfortable that the Pride committee understands the need to comply with our bylaws and our anti-discrimination policy to ensure there’s a safe and comfortable experience for people.”

It was QuAIA member Tim McCaskell who recently told Xtra that “comfort” is not a valid reason to stifle debate in a march based in the principle of human rights for all.

“I would disagree with Tim,” says Rae, “He is casting a very wide-open — and conveniently wide-open — analysis. What Pride is, is a demonstration against homophobia. That’s where it started in 1981 — protest against state-sponsored homophobia.” Discussions of Israelis and Palestinians, even queer ones, he says, “are not germane to what Pride is, which is about fighting homophobia and celebrating the success of our community.” 

Rae says he’s not unsympathetic to the QuAIA argument.

“I think there are legitimate concerns about Israeli government policy. I have no problem with that; I’m concerned myself. But get your own parade permit and march in front of the Israeli consulate. I don’t think there’s any point to making that statement in an anti-homophobia march. It doesn’t connect. It would be like seeing this group in the Santa Claus parade or the St. Patrick’s Day parade — it’s not relevant!”

On their website, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid vow, “We will march in Pride Toronto 2010 because we are proud of our politics.”

But that makes Rae leery.

“They’ve boxed themselves into a rhetoric that only they are listening to.”

Perhaps, says Demchuk, “but the human rights aspects are not going away.”

While Rae, Mammoliti and Sandilands conspire to “erase all the little bits and pieces of contentiousness to make Pride safe for sponsors and funders and familes,” he says, “we managed to turn censorship into something cuddly.”

Is Pride an angry political march for human rights?  Is Pride a fluffy street party to celebrate our success? 

The community will have to decide, Demchuk says, though he insists it can be both and more.

“I think it should be a big happy, jolly, sexy, funny human rights march. I’m convinced it’s still possible to sell beer and still maintain your integrity. In years’ past, it has been and will be again.”

Pride has until June 14th to ban QuAIA from the parade — assuming they haven’t already — and Mammoliti will be watching. “I’m doing the right thing here,” he says, “I don’t care what anybody says and I won’t stop.”