Egale Canada’s plan to present its inaugural leadership award to Jaime Watt has come under fire from those who say his communications work for rightwing governments should disqualify him.
At a gala fundraiser on Fri, Jun 5 in Toronto to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada, Egale will present the award to Watt for “outstanding contribution to LGBT human rights in Canada.”
In an email, Watt writes that the award comes out of the blue.
“It was a complete surprise. I don’t think of the award as one for me,” he writes. “Rather, I think of it for all those who have played leadership roles, in a variety of ways, in our ongoing fight for equality.
“I think I have been given an opportunity, in a number of different ways, to contribute whether through the Canadian Human Rights Trust, Canadians for Equal Marriage, Egale or Casey House, amongst many others. I hope I have made a difference. That, however, is for others to say.”
Egale executive director Helen Kennedy did not respond to requests for an interview with Xtra.ca. But queer activists say Watt’s work for Mike Harris’s Conservative government in Ontario and for the Canadian Alliance — the successor to the Reform Party, which eventually merged with the Conservative Party — should make such an award unthinkable.
“I’m sorry, that’s just wrong,” says Peter Bochove, a Toronto bathhouse owner who has campaigned for changes to Canadian sex laws. “I find it personally offensive. I don’t understand how you can be gay and belong to these parties. Leave aside the gay community, let’s talk about Walkerton, let’s talk about Ipperwash, let’s talk about the amalgamation of Toronto, let’s talk about the ‘common-sense revolution’. It’s the antithesis of everything in the gay community.”
Tim McCaskell, one of the founders of AIDS Action Now, says Watt’s work for the Harris government did massive damage to queer communities across Ontario.
“He was one of the architects of the Harris common-sense revolution,” he says. “There was tremendous damage to infrastructure that most gays depend on. There were cuts to schools that set back anti-homophobia education by years. They closed hospitals that people with AIDS use. Jaime was on board for all that.”
Asked about the criticism, Watt writes only, “I would ask them if they have heard of Bill 5.”
Bill 5 was a bill passed by the Harris government in 1999, which changed provincial statutes to give same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex common-law couples. The bill followed the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in M vs H that same-sex couples should have the same rights and obligations and the same right to benefit from social programs as opposite-sex common-law couples.
Watt was one of the architects of Harris’ election victories in 1995 and 1999. He was also the director of communications in the first Harris government before being forced to resign after a fraud conviction in the ’80s came to light. Watt also worked on Tom Long’s campaign for leadership of the Canadian Alliance. Long was attacked by the Christian right for employing an openly gay man on his campaign.
“Watt, a self-proclaimed homosexual, is a prominent gay activist and no friend of pro-lifers,” wrote the rightwing Campaign Life Coalition. “As co-chair of the Canadian Human Rights Committee [sic] in 1997 he traveled to Ottawa to lobby MPs for increased ‘equality’ rights for homosexuals.”
Watt supported Jim Flaherty — now the federal finance minister — in his campaign to succeed Mike Harris as Ontario premier, but worked on the election campaign of Ernie Eves in 2003. According to the National Post, Watt signed off on the press release from the Tories accusing Dalton McGuinty of being an “evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet.”
After the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive Conservative party, Watt worked on the leadership campaign of Belinda Stronach. Stronach is co-chair of the Egale event. Watt also worked on the Toronto mayoral campaign of Barbara Hall in 2003.
Political affiliations aside, Watt has been involved in a number of queer and gay-positive organizations. He is currently the co-chair of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives endowment campaign. He is a past chair of the board of Casey House and has sat on the board of St Michael’s hospital. He was also a founding trustee and co-chair of the Canadian Human Rights Trust and the Canadian Human Rights Campaign and a member of the executive committee of Canadians for Equal Marriage.
Watt runs Navigator, a public relations company that provides office space for Egale in its Toronto office.
A letter seeking to persuade people to buy tickets for the Egale gala states “Jaime has been a key player using his unique combination of insight and influence to promote equality rights for gays and lesbians to politicians across the country at both the federal and provincial levels.”
But Bochove says support of same-sex marriage and backroom work doesn’t go very far.
“Egale can give its fucking award to anyone they choose,” he says, “but I’ll be absolutely damned if I would give it to someone like Jaime Watt, no matter what they did to further the right to same-sex marriage. If that’s the criteria, give it to Brent Hawkes. He was named to the Order of Canada, he’s not good enough for Egale? I can think offhand of more than 100 people better qualified than Watt.”
McCaskell, too, says that he would like to see the award go to somebody with a much more prominent history of public activism.
“You’d usually give your first award to someone who has long track record in the community,” he says.