An opinion often heard during the election coverage is that voting in Atlantic Canada is unlike that in any other part of the country. Here on the East Coast, party loyalty often gives way to personal popularity producing a mixed bag of results — some of them encouraging, others disturbing, especially for queers.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Danny Williams’ ABC (Anything But Conservative) campaign seems to have worked extremely well. Two of the three seats held by Conservatives before the election went Liberal and the third was taken by the NDP, leaving not a single seat for the Tories. Williams is immensely popular and has a reputation of being ready to protect his province’s interests against the federal government. He scrapped with Paul Martin and this time showed he was ready to be David against the Goliath of Stephen Harper.
But before we start celebrating Newfoundland’s rejection of the Tories, we would do well to remember that two of the Liberal incumbents voted against same-sex marriage. Gerry Byrne of Humber-St Barbe-Baie Verte voted against Bill C-38 and also voted to reopen the debate when Harper brought it up in Parliament. Scott Simms of Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor also voted against C-38, although he also released a press statement that he was personally in favour of same-sex marriage but his constituents were not. Pride celebrations have been held in St John’s since the mid-’90s with strong support from Mayor Andy Wells, suggesting that support for gay rights is uneven in the province and strongest in the capital city.
Prince Edward Island surprised many of us by breaking a 24-year pattern of electing Liberals only. Gail Shea, the new Conservative MP for Egmont, was a former provincial member of the legislative assembly in Premier Pat Binn’s Progressive Conservative government. Shea won by only 60 votes and the other three seats of Prince Edward Island remained Liberal seats. It should be noted that, as we saw in Newfoundland, one of the incumbent Liberals, Lawrence MacAulay of Cardigan, voted against Bill C-38. Pride celebrations happen in both Charlottetown and Summerside during the summer and PEI is the only Atlantic province to include queer-owned or queer-friendly accommodations in its tourist brochure.
Nova Scotia is always the subject of considerable scrutiny during election time, and politically the province is a study in contrasts.
Peter MacKay, the Harper government’s defence minister was challenged by Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party. MacKay, son of Elmer MacKay who held the same seat of Central Nova as a Progressive Conservative, handily won his seat again.
Scott Brison, the openly gay MP for Kings Hants won his seat for the fifth time against his Conservative opponent. Brison had initially won the seat as a Progressive Conservative MP but then left to join the Liberals when the PCs merged with the Alliance party. Switching parties, coming out publicly, getting married; none of this has affected his strong popularity.
Aside from MacKay, support for queer issues is strong especially in the ridings around Halifax. Even Conservative Gerald Keddy, MP for South Shore-St Margaret’s, went against his party and voted yes on C-38, stating that it was a matter of human rights. Megan Leslie of the NDP is a queer rights activist and handily won her Halifax seat, continuing the strong NDP presence in the riding held by Alexa McDonough until her retirement. Liberal members Mike Savage and Geoff Regan who hold seats on either side of Halifax have records of supporting queer rights, as does NDP Peter Stoffer of Sackville-Eastern Shore.
Independent Bill Casey gained notoriety when he was booted from the Conservative caucus for criticizing a budget. The Harper government has since refused entreaties from the local Conservative riding association to have Casey reinstated and even brought in a candidate from Ottawa to oppose him. Casey won by a landslide, thereby enhancing his reputation. His record on queer rights is less laudable. He voted against C-38 but also opposed reopening the debate.
New Brunswick is the province of most concern for gay rights. The Conservatives gained three seats bringing the total to six out of 10. In the city of Saint John, Rodney Weston defeated Liberal incumbent Paul Zed. Weston’s stand on queer rights is not yet known, but it may be significant that he is a deacon of the Baptist Church, and Saint John was the riding once held by Elsie Wayne whose anti-gay rhetoric was well-known. Liberal MPs Jean-Claude D’Amours, Dominic LeBlanc, and Brian Murphy have records supporting queer rights as does the lone NDP MP, Yvon Godin in Acadie-Bathurst.
The province’s record on queer issues is somewhat spotty. A former mayor of Fredericton was taken before the Human Rights Commission for refusing to proclaim Pride Week. Saint John and Moncton hold regular Pride celebrations, but on the other hand high schools in Charlotte County (in the riding of New Brunswick Southwest, held by Conservative MP Greg Thompson) made news recently by refusing to allow gay author Alex Sanchez to speak to students because of the concerns of a few parents.
The election is over, at a cost of $300 million, with the lowest voter turnout in history and with little change in the overall political landscape. Clearly the struggle for queer rights in Atlantic Canada must continue. It’s already time to start preparing for the next election.