A close look at some of the candidates running on the Conservative Party banner in British Columbia will give pause to many who had hoped that the heir to the Reform Party was maturing into something more moderate under the post-merger influence of former Progressive Conservatives.
Pundits say almost all BC riding races are too close to call. In that atmosphere, hot button issues like opposition to rights for gays and the First Nations could provide a winning edge for some Conservatives. A contingent of political true believers could be on its way to Ottawa by the end of this month – no doubt to the surprise of many in the rest of Canada who had hoped the Conservatives had found moderation at their policy convention in Montreal last March.
Have a group of radical conservatives hijacked the riding nominations in BC? It’s something that Lloyd Mackey, author of the recent biography, The Pilgrimage Of Stephen Harper, warned about. He told the National Post’s Peter O’Neill in September that a small group of radical religious “militants” were trying to take over the Conservative Party and, ultimately, Parliament. He estimates that half the current Conservative caucus in the House support conservative religious positions.
Mackey wasn’t the first to raise this concern. Last May, Gloria Galloway, writing in The Globe And Mail, noted that, “At least three riding associations in Nova Scotia, four in British Columbia and one in suburban Toronto have nominated candidates with ties to groups like Focus On The Family, a Christian organization that opposes same-sex marriage.”
Chris Mackenzie, a political sociologist at the University Of British Columbia and author of the recently published Pro-Family Politics And Fringe Parties In Canada, says that the rightwing religious upsurge that exists in Canada today has been building for some time.
“Over the last five to six years social conservatives in Canada have been trying to flex more muscle. This is not a new presence ( they’ve been around forever. Canadian social conservatives are now moving into established parties.”
On Canada’s west coast, there are four Conservative candidates worth a close examination. They are Cindy Silver, a candidate in North Vancouver who is a former legal staff member for the family values group Focus On The Family; Darrel Reid, running in Vancouver suburb of Richmond, who served the same group as president from 1998 until 2004; Marc Dalton, running in Burnaby, who was a former pastor at a local church; and John Weston, the candidate in the suburban West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, a local lawyer whose past activism has been more focussed on opposing the Nisga’a land claims treaty than promoting social conservative positions on marriage and sexuality.
How worried should queer and queer-supportive voters be about candidates who espouse the Focus line? Here are a few background facts to help inform that determination.
Focus On The Family Canada is a branch plant operation of the US Focus On The Family. It shares overlapping board membership with the US body, and receives substantial support from the parent group. Like the US model, Focus On The Family in Canada is dedicated to promoting a conservative, religiously inflected view of acceptable family structure, limiting women’s access to abortion and strengthening legal barriers against pornography and prostitution, all in the name of Biblical “family values.” Focus Canada operates out of Langley BC, and has opened Canada’s largest social conservative lobbying office in Ottawa, the nine-member Institute For Marriage And The Family.
Focus On The Family Canada runs a sophisticated operation that includes its own radio shows, Christian counselling, frequent press releases and lobbying efforts, extensive “pro-family” publications and interventions in court cases. In the US, Focus president James Dobson has been viewed as a Republican kingmaker, helping to deliver a bloc of evangelical voters who made up close to one-third of US President George W Bush’s popular vote in 2004. While nowhere near as influential as its counterpart in the US, Focus Canada clearly has an agenda to steer Canadian public policy to the hard right on matters touching on family and sexuality.
Silver acted as staff legal counsel for the group from 1993 until 1998, speaking for Focus in opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage. She followed this work with a stint as executive director of the Christian Legal Fellowship Of Canada. Silver has responded testily to media stories linking her to Focus On The Family, and, by extension, the hardcore Christian right, calling such accounts “graffiti journalism.” And, to be fair, a lawyer should not be assumed to actually believe everything she says in serving her clients. However, Silver did tell a House standing committee in 2001, “I happen to believe that homosexuality is wrong. If that makes me homophobic, then these pamphlets are telling my children that their mother is homophobic and putting a very nasty name to something which I feel is a deeply held conviction.”
Reid, meanwhile, reportedly spoke in 2003 at a Focus On The Family seminar for Christian professionals in Singapore entitled “Preventing Homosexuality.” He told the Richmond Review late last year that same-sex marriage was a big issue for Richmond voters and that “a vote for Darrel Reid is a vote for traditional marriage.” The same story included quotes from earlier Reid statements denouncing common-law marriage and the United Nations, as well as same-sex marriage.
No evidence has surfaced tying Dalton or Weston directly to Focus On The Family, and a campaign spokesman for Dalton denied that his candidate had any connection at all with the organization, but both have been grouped with Silver and Reid in media accounts as social conservatives. A worker from the Dalton campaign denied that Dalton had any connection to Focus on the Family, but did confirm that Dalton would vote against same-sex marriage in a free vote in the House.
All four of these candidates were unwilling to make time for an interview with Xtra.ca. Focus On The Family spokesman Mark Penninga declined on behalf of his organization to be interviewed, saying that Focus is a charity and cannot take partisan positions or endorse candidates.
That said, all four of these candidates have been endorsed on a Christian website called My Canada 4 His Dominion at 4mycanada.blogslot.com, which appears to be the youth-themed face of the antigay marriage campaign in Canada. In fact, 11 BC candidates appear on the Christian anti-same-sex-marriage site endorsement list. The others are James Lunney, Gary Lunn, Paul Forseth, Greg Watrich, Randy Kamp, David Matta and Ross Heibert. All are Conservatives except for Greg Watrich, who is running as an independent in suburban Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam – against Conservative MP James Moore, one of only three in his party to vote for the same-sex marriage bill.
In the last federal election, BC sent 22 Conservatives to Ottawa, out of a provincial contingent of 36. Twenty-one of these Conservatives voted against same sex marriage. A few courageous Tories, including Moore, defied their party to stand up for equal marriage rights last year. The new Conservative candidate in Vancouver Centre, Tony Fogarassy, has announced his support for equal marriage, perhaps unsurprising for a candidate in a heavily gay urban riding who is running against Hedy Fry and Svend Robinson. A significant minority within the Liberal caucus voted against Bill C-38, so the issue doesn’t resolve itself into a simple partisan choice.
Even the candidates with clear connections to rightwing religious groups are not united in all their positions. Silver, for example, is on record as supporting choice on abortion, not a common perspective amongst her political allies. The national campaign to roll back equal marriage rights, Votemarriage.ca is headed up by Pat O’Brien, a former Liberal MP.
Nevertheless, the Conservative victory that is now being suggested by recent polling results could well see queer rights up for debate once again. Also worrisome is the fact that some BC Conservative candidates have taken disturbing positions on First Nations issues. Weston, as noted, campaigned vigorously against the historic Nisga’a land claims treaty and two other Conservative candidates in BC’s Lower Mainland, Phil Eidsvik and John Cummins, have built much of their political careers around divisive opposition to the native fishery.
So what is an eggnog-befuddled voter to make of all this? Vancouver lawyer barbara findlay, known for her work in gay-rights cases, says she’s disturbed by the thought that religious conservatives with an antigay-rights agenda could become even more powerful than they already are in the Conservative Party.
“Fundamentalism in government is the death of equality,” she says. “It is critical that we maintain a bright line between religion and politics.”
On the other hand, University Of BC law school assistant dean Wes Pue, a committed civil libertarian with close ties to the Canadian evangelical community, takes a different view. He’s sharply critical of most of the religious right, particularly groups like Focus On The Family, but maintains there’s a place for them in Canadian politics.
“I disagree with almost everything these bodies put forward as their own opinion,” says Pue. “But that does not mean it is illegitimate for them to express their views on public policy. To the extent they seek to make the state an arm of their particular religious faith, I think they do great disservice both to state and to religion.”
Pue cautions that Christian belief doesn’t always equate with backward social policy views ( just look at Tommy Douglas, the Christian Peacemaker Teams and the many believers who are active members of all Canadian parties. Furthermore, he agrees with the suggestion sometimes voiced by Canadian religious conservatives that they too have sometimes been the victims of intolerance.
“Simply criticizing people for expressing their views approaches bigotry. To suggest that some people who think of themselves as Christian should, for that reason, disavow participation in the public sphere is, well, McCarthyite.”