2 min

Countering Aunty Gwen’s activism

Egale Canada is a new neighbour to REAL Women

Credit: Suzy Malik

When the Ottawa Pride Committee and Egale Canada moved into their new shared office space on Cooper St last month, they had no idea what horrors – and family connections – lurked just down the hall.

The two gay organizations are now in the same building – and on the same floor – as the national headquarters of the right-wing lobby group REAL Women of Canada.

For decades, REAL Women has been an active and vocal opponent of gay rights. Although their motto is “Women’s rights but not at the expense of human rights,” the reactionary organization has been labeled anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-choice by more liberal-minded groups.

Most recently, as part of the Association for Marriage and the Family – a “pro-family” coalition that includes Focus on the Family Canada and the Canada Family Action Coalition – REAL Women has fought tooth and nail against extending civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

However, Gilles Marchildon, Egale Canada’s executive director, says he is unconcerned by the socially conservative group’s close proximity to his organization’s new Ottawa office.

“I’m not sure when I became aware that REAL Women was down the hallway – I don’t remember if it was before or after the move – [but] even if it had been before, it wouldn’t have played any role in our decision,” says Marchildon. “In fact, it might have even encouraged us; there’s an old Chinese saying, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.'”

Marchildon says his group chose to move to the larger office space in the Cooper St building, four blocks away from Egale’s previous headquarters at Gloucester and Bank, because it brings the group closer to “Ottawa’s burgeoning gay village” while keeping the gay lobby group within walking distance of Parliament.

Diane Watts, REAL Women’s national researcher, agrees with Marchildon that the nearness of the two offices should have little effect on each organization’s daily affairs.

“We rent an office in this building and we’re quite happy with the space we have here and we just come in and do our work – and I am sure that everyone else [on the floor] does the same thing as far as I can see,” says Watts, adding that REAL Women has been headquartered at the Cooper St office building for about three years.

But the two lobby groups share more than the same hallway and bathrooms, they also share a family connection. The current president of Egale Canada’s board of directors, Stephen Burri, is the nephew of REAL Women’s vice-president and frequent spokesperson Gwendolyn Landolt.

Burri says the root of his activism may be in part due to Landolt, because he feels his family “has an obligation to present a counter-point to Aunty Gwen’s activism.”

“On a personal level, I can only hope that by knowing her family includes at least one gay man – tolerated, accepted, loved and even celebrated by many in the family, outside the family and by her God – Aunty Gwen will have to expand her horizons, open her eyes and wake up to the reality that has always been our family and our society, but a reality which voices such as Aunty Gwen’s have tried to deny,” he says.

And, although the there may be a moment or two of awkwardness in the future, Shannon Salisbury, Pride’s communications director, says she doesn’t anticipate any serious problems between the two offices – even though they reside on opposing ends of the political spectrum as well as the same hallway.

In fact, she adds, for the most part the building is politically “very liberal” with the weekly alternative newspapers Xpress and Voir, and the Green Party headquarters all renting office space.

“And there is an English as a Second Language school on our floor as well, and a couple of First Nations organizations in the building, too,” says Salisbury. “So, they’re the stick-out thumb. We’re fine.”