If you think Svend Robinson’s run for Parliament in Vancouver Centre will be a cakewalk simply because the riding is home to one the biggest queer communities in Western Canada, think again.
Yes, Robinson was Canada’s first openly gay member of Parliament. However, he is running against Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry, a longtime queer ally and Vancouver Centre MP since she beat then-prime minister Kim Campbell in 1993. Though many suspect it’s a two-way race between Fry and Robinson, add to the fray Tony Fogarassy, a Conservative equal marriage proponent, plus the Green Party’s Jared Evans, who is openly gay, and it’s a recipe for an interesting race indeed.
“As a gay man, [I think] she’s an excellent defender of gay rights,” says Fry’s campaign aide Jody Jollimore. Jollimore moved to Vancouver just two months ago and chose to work on the campaign because of Fry’s experience with the queer community as a physician and her record as an MP.
“Having more women of colour in Ottawa is extremely important,” adds Jollimore.
Jollimore worked his first federal campaign with Montreal area MP Marlene Jennings, also a woman of colour. He says Fry’s personal background, having immigrated to Canada from Trinidad, reflects the reality of a lot of voters.
“She’s an interesting person who’s eclectic. I feel she just represents a metropolitan riding so well,” says Jollimore.
But some say it’s high time for change in Vancouver Centre, even those who personally like the incumbent.
“She has great energy, she has her heart in the right place,” says Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva, who nominated Robinson on Dec 4. “I don’t condemn Hedy, I condemn the government that she has to support and that’s the issue to me. I don’t think it should be a personal issue. To me it’s not. I have great respect for Hedy Fry. I just think our riding can do better in addressing some of the problems,” he says.
Deva says the NDP has better plans for addressing homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.
“We have members of our community out on the street too. I’m really hoping that voters draw back and look at those issues, and vote in a more global sense than we have in the past,” urges Deva.
He’s not the only constituent in Vancouver Centre who feels this way. Xtra West hit the streets to speak with queer voters.
“Healthcare, taxes, the quality of life for everybody,” are the real issues, says Jim Burnett over a pint at the PumpJack Pub on Davie St. “It’s devastating. We have people we walk over every day now,” he says.
Robinson’s strength, say supporters, is that he is a visible, well-known candidate.
First elected MP for the Burnaby-Douglas riding in 1979, Robinson won seven consecutive elections. In 1988, he became Canada’s first publicly gay MP when he came out on national TV.
In the 2004 election, Vancouver Centre NDP candidate Kennedy Stewart placed second, 4,230 votes behind Fry. If Robinson’s profile makes the difference, he would be the first-ever NDP MP to represent the riding.
However, Robinson’s visibility could also prove a liability.
Burnett, who says he always votes NDP, says this time around he’ll be voting for the NDP as a party, not the candidate. He predicts the Liberals will win Vancouver Centre again.
“Svend’s just playing the gay angle and the gay angle’s getting tired,” says Burnett.
Jollimore says Robinson’s decision to run in Vancouver Centre is “opportunistic,” noting, “We don’t vote in blocs. Why isn’t he trying to pick off one of the white straight men?”
As for Burnett, he will vote NDP anyway to make a stand and “to keep everything in line. There are so many extremes, the middle of the road just doesn’t work anymore.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, are hoping that focusing on shared issues faced by the queer community and the community as a whole will win precious votes.
“I keep reminding Tony that members of the gay and lesbian community have children. They have need for healthcare. They’re afraid of walking around the streets downtown. So the cares of the gay and lesbian community are the same cares as every resident in Vancouver Centre,” says Fogarassy’s campaign manager Gary Mitchell.
Mitchell ran for the Vancouver Centre seat as the only openly gay Conservative candidate in the 2004 election.
Initially, even NDP supporters were speculating Fogarassy would make the 2006 election a three-way race. However, Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s announcement that he will put equal marriage to a free vote in the House of Commons, effectively put the nail in the coffin of Fogarassy’s campaign before it had a chance, many voters say.
Over at Delany’s Coffee House on Denman St, David Duncan says the Conservatives’ agenda leaves him with few choices. “There’s no longer a socially moderate, fiscally responsible party.”
Though Duncan’s friend Zak Bourgoin won’t reveal who he’ll cast his vote for, he says he will be “voting for a change,” and for the person he feels will best represent Vancouver Centre.
“I feel comfortable voting for a change in this riding because I’m pretty sure the federal outcome will pretty much be what we already have.
In Vancouver Centre, I’m a little disappointed in our representative. I had high hopes and they’ve been dashed,” says Bourgoin.
Meanwhile, Duncan says, “I’m going to plug my nose and vote Liberal.
“I respect Svend for standing up for what he believes in,” Duncan continues, “but I don’t believe in anything he does for the most part. The ring thing, I think was a really tragic end to his career, and mostly I want to ensure it’s a Liberal minority and not a Conservative minority.”
Robinson dropped out of the 2004 election race after admitting he stole a ring at a Vancouver auction last April. Charged with theft, Robinson pleaded guilty and was given a discharge on the condition he serve one year’s probation, do 100 hours of community service and undergo psychiatric counselling.
Regardless of the ring, Duncan notes he wouldn’t vote for Robinson because of his politics.
Bourgoin was serving as a page in the House of Commons when Robinson was first elected. He gives Robinson credit for his honesty. “I’m more or less disregarding the ring situation because I’ve known Svend on a personal basis. I know him, so I know that there was something very strange going on there that isn’t who he really is…. Everybody has had times in their life when they’ve done stupid things for not obvious reasons and I think everyone understands that.
“But to show your face again and have it in the paper, you’re making yourself vulnerable in a very public way. I give him points for it, actually,” Bourgoin concludes.
Christopher Pinhey, who is weighing Robinson against the Green Party’s Evans, says Robinson has proven he can represent a diverse community in Burnaby, despite the fact that many of its constituents have relatively conservative social values.
“I feel as an MP, you’re going to get your money’s worth with Svend,” says Pinhey.