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Exploiting the politics of identity

'If I weren't gay, I'd be another White Anglo-Saxon Protestant politician': Brison

Liberal leadership candidate Scott Brison Credit: Xtra West files

The first thing I learn on meeting Liberal Party leadership candidate Scott Brison is that he is a man who likes his eggs.

When I meet him in the lobby of the Hyatt for a 9:30 am interview, he boasts that he has been awake since 5:30 doing interviews and hasn’t yet eaten, and asks if we could chat over breakfast.

“I’m a country boy. I need eggs in the morning,” he says, smiling wide.

As we make our way to the hotel restaurant, it occurs to me that this is a typical character moment for Brison, who frequently boasts that he is the only leadership candidate who represents a rural riding-never mind that by trade he’s an investment banker who spent most of his 20s in Halifax, New York and Toronto before running for office.

But what Brison is most commonly known for is being openly gay.

“Less and less,” he says, boasting that media are increasingly more interested in his policy stances than his sexuality.

“Most articles don’t even talk about it any more, which I think is positive because it’s just sort of a normal thing, that people assume is just a modern part of Canadian normalcy.”

As we take our seats, Brison reflects, with typical dramatic flair, that the rapid evolution of gay rights in Canada has led many gays to grow complacent.
“I was 14 when Trudeau brought in the Charter of Rights,” he says. “In fact, I was born in 1967, and homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized until 1968, so I lived my first year as a criminal.”

Except that he only would have broken the law if he was having penetrative anal sex before his first birthday, and even then, he would have been too young to be considered a criminal. But, credit where credit’s due, Brison’s colourful hyperbole is entertaining.

When the waiter comes to take our order, Brison orders a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and asparagus with a glass of tomato juice, and haggles with the silver-haired server to get an extra egg instead of a side of toast.

“You can write that he’s a fiscal conservative,” Brison tells me. “He tries to negotiate eggs for toast over breakfast.” Later, when the bill comes, it totals $55-that’s for a plate of eggs and juice each for Brison and his assistant-and he tips just under 15 percent.

Brison defines his politics as blending the social values of the NDP and the economic principals of the Conservatives.
“I tell you how that works,” he says, leaning in as if to share a secret. “Canadians don’t trust the NDP with their money, and they don’t trust the Conservatives really with their rights.”

It’s an odd argument, given that Brison was elected twice as a Progressive Conservative MP, and was instrumental in talks to unite the PC Party with the Canadian Alliance to create the Conservative Party.

But Brison believes his background in the PC Party will help him connect with voters who are turned off by divisive partisan bickering.

“I think there’s a certain sanctimony in the way we as Liberals talk about values sometimes,” he says between mouthfuls of eggs. “I think I’m better able to understand that than a lot of Liberals in terms of how we do that.

“My riding, you could call it the Baptist Belt of Nova Scotia,” he continues. “A lot of people in those communities vote for me not because I diminish or attack their values, but because I’m clear on mine.”
He may have a point. His riding of Kings-Hants was once among the safest PC ridings in the country. From 1968 until Brison’s conversion to the Liberals in 2003, its citizens had only sent a Liberal to Ottawa in the 1993 election, when the PC and Reform parties split the vote three ways with the incumbent, who had been booted from the PC Party by then-Prime Minister Mulroney. Brison has now been re-elected three times since coming out as gay, twice as a Liberal.

Despite his stated reluctance to attack the values of others, he’s certainly not shy about attacking the values and actions of Stephen Harper and what he calls his “fundamentalist moralistic perspective on important issues.” His typical response to an issue of social policy includes at least some form of screed against Harper.

Earlier in the week, when I asked Brison how his plan for private sector involvement in health care would benefit those living with HIV/AIDS, he gave me a brief topical answer, then called me 10 minutes later and left a message marked urgent to add that Harper’s failure to attend the International AIDS Conference in Toronto “demonstrated a remarkable lack of compassion and understanding.”

Brison’s dislike for Harper seems almost personal when he squeezes a lemon wedge into his tomato juice and comments that “Harper is one of the least engaging people that I’ve ever met,” then boasts, “I was able to put him in his place on the floor of the House of Commons. I look forward to doing so in the debates.”

One issue that’s likely to be raised in the next election is same-sex marriage, which Harper used as a wedge issue earlier this year. But Brison isn’t worried that his own same-sex marriage to partner Maxime Saint-Pierre may become a personalized target in a debate against Harper.

“If he feels awkward around me, that’s his problem, but I’d be debating the issues,” he says.

Although Brison is quick to insist he’s running for the Liberal leadership to promote a host of social, environmental, and economic issues-and not simply to make a statement about sexuality in politics-he is equally quick to position his orientation as at least one reason to vote for him.

“By choosing me as leader, the party would be making a pretty clear statement on its view on social progress,” he previously told Xtra West. In another calculatedly casual mention of his sexuality, he recently told The Hill Times “I was born a Liberal, I just came out a few years ago.”

Now, as he sips tomato juice, he boasts, “I’m not just socially progressive, I live social progress”-one of a number of such slogans.

So which is it: is he a gay politician or a politician who just happens to be gay? And if he’s just a politician who happens to be gay, why does his sexuality come up at every opportunity?

“You can’t divorce yourself from that reality of who you are and how it shapes you,” he says. “I am more conscious of the rights of women and the rights of minorities than I would be otherwise.

“If I weren’t gay, I’d be another White Anglo-Saxon Protestant politician.”
And with a platform that advocates further defence integration with the US, tax cuts for corporations, and private-sector delivery of health care, it’s perhaps easy to confuse Brison with our current White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Prime Minister, at least on non-gay issues.

On the other hand, if the choice in the next election comes down to Stephen Harper and a slightly more Liberal, gay version of Stephen Harper, at least Brison will bring something unique to Parliament.

“I think just having me as Prime Minister would make the House of Commons just that much more fabulous,” he says as his assistant whisks him off to his next campaign appointment.