The national pension plan. Unemployment insurance. Public Medicare.
Together, these things help define us as Canadians on this continent, right?
And they were all given us by the federal Liberal government, right?
They’re all ideas invented or promoted by the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF. And they, along with public housing, environmental regulations and union protections, were negotiated by the NDP in exchange for supporting fragile minority Liberal governments.
“The only significant social advance that came from a Liberal majority government is the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms,” says Jamey Heath, a key strategist for the current NDP campaign and an Ottawa gay man. And the Charter, he adds, came about because of the determination and power of Pierre Trudeau, not his party.
That’s right, most of the programs that many Canadians, perhaps including you, love most about Canada were forced on Liberal governments by the NDP. Or, on occasion, stolen for use in election platforms by astute Liberal strategists recognizing their immense popularity with urban and suburban Canadian voters. That’s politics.
But it says something about us that many Canadians seem to think these were Liberal ideas — and that federal Liberals are deeply committed to social justice issues. (Heath notes that it was Paul Martin who, as finance minister in 1995, killed the national housing program. The program — an NDP demand foisted on a 1970s Liberal minority government — created affordable homes for a million Canadians and won a United Nations award).
In the recently ended minority government, the NDP was again able to force concessions from the Martin government in exchange for keeping it in power. This time they got money for affordable housing, student tuitions, energy efficiency, public transportation, workers rights — and the cancellation of a multi-billion dollar giveaway to corporations. It was not much of an exaggeration for leader Jack Layton to claim the last budget was the first-ever NDP federal budget in Canadian history. The NDP kept the Liberals in government until Martin rebuffed demands to stop the slide of Medicare toward a private healthcare system — and then they pulled the plug.
Even rightwing media commentators agree that the NDP under Layton accomplished a minor miracle of influence considering they were one seat short of what was necessary to deliver a full majority of votes when combined with seats held by the Liberals. Many Canadians won big from having sent NDP MPs to Ottawa — popular legislative programs that the Liberals would likely never have delivered if they’d won a majority in 2004.
Despite that, the NDP have been flat-lined at 17 to 20 percent support in the polls through this whole election. Many of Canada’s centre-left voters are still considering voting for the Liberals, perhaps to reduce the size of Stephen Harper’s win, or perhaps because they believe the Liberals were the authors of the popular programs that the NDP extorted from them. Some NDP insiders, Heath among them, find it particularly painful to see progressive gay voters backing the Liberals.
Heath is particularly upset by an Egale Canada election report card that gave Paul Martin an “A” on gay rights “based on his effective leadership on equal marriage,” according to an Egale media release. That puts Martin just behind Jack Layton, who got an “A+” for “a lifetime of unwavering, active support and leadership in the struggle for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi, trans] equality.” Predictably, Harper got an “F.”
Martin didn’t deserve a high mark for the way he handled same-sex marriage rights, says Heath, who cannot forget backbench Liberal MPs were allowed to vote their “conscience” on the bill. Some 34 Liberals voted against Bill C-38 even as Martin proclaimed his is the party of human rights.
“Would he hold a free vote for women’s equality or racial equality?” asks Heath. “Is it only gays and lesbians who get to see a free vote on their equality rights? And he has the unmitigated, manipulative gall to describe himself as a Charter champion.”
Heath has a point. To vote your conscience implies a moral dimension to an issue, a stark contrast to an issue of fundamental human rights. It’s far from the first time Liberal backbenchers have been free to vote as they desire on gay-rights issues. So, why do so many of us give the Liberals so much credit on gay issues come election time?
First, it is the party of Trudeau, the left liberal who brought home Canada’s Constitution and imbedded in it the very Charter Of Rights And Freedoms that has changed court decisions radically. Prior to the Charter, homosexual rights were dismissed in all three cases to reach the nation’s top court. Since then, we’ve won most equality decisions to reach the top court, though we’ve fared very badly in cases to do with issues around censorship, pornography and sexual freedom.
In a bizarre case of political magic, former prime minister Jean Chrétien managed to get credit from many gays for advancing gay rights while, in truth, he resolutely opposed them through the courts. In case after case, Chrétien forced gay litigants to spend years and many thousands of dollars fighting for equality and fairness. But because he refused to invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause whenever the Supreme Court ruled against the government, Chrétien is often remembered as a friend of homos. Did we cut him slack because we thought Chrétien was on our side all along? We’d be wrong — he was clearly reluctant to advance our cause and was demonstrably awkward whenever speaking in public about gay rights. Did we cut him slack because he was the little guy from Shawinigan? That would be ironic considering what we now know from the Gomery inquiry, n’est ce pas? And a footnote: Chrétien refused throughout his term to be interviewed by the gay media. Hmmm.
A look at Paul Martin’s record is even more discouraging. Martin voted in favour of a 1999 Reform Party motion defining marriage as inherently being between a man and a woman. He’s the only party leader to clearly say he’d use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause on a human-rights issue — to protect churches from having to perform same-sex marriages.
But it doesn’t stop there. Martin is appealing to the Supreme Court the 2004 victory of some 1,500 gay pension survivors. These seniors, whose partners died before 1998, were wrongly denied survivor benefits, ruled the Ontario Court Of Appeal. Lawyers have accused the Martin government of trying to keep the case alive until the seniors died.
The first act of the Martin minority government was to introduce Bill C-2. Masquerading as legislation against child porn, this bill actually interferes with a teen’s rights to choose their own sexual partners and is a profound threat to freedom of the press and the work of authors, filmmakers and visual artists. History tells us it will be gay teens and gay artists who will suffer most because of this legislation.
It’s also important to note that neither Martin nor Chrétien reformed Canada Customs (now the Canadian Border Services Agency) to make it more accountable after the Supreme Court chastised the border agency for targeting gay bookstores and their customers in the Little Sister’s Bookstore decision in 2000. How can Liberal governments who say they respect gay equality allow Customs to continue to ignore the directions of the court in that decision?
During the election, Martin has allowed his candidates to speak out against same-sex marriage rights in local campaigns — even as he told Harper during one televised debate that the Conservative leader was unfit to govern because of his opposition to those same marriage rights.
Same-sex marriage rights would have been defeated in Parliament if the vote had been decided by Liberal and Conservative MPs, notes Heath. It took NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs to get the bill passed.
Yet Egale gives Martin an “A?” asks Heath. “If the national gay lobby organization is okay with each MP making a decision on equality based on their personal conscience, that’s a recipe for [Egale] not being taken seriously.” How do they expect to encourage politicians to stand up for gay rights when they’ll settle for so little? he asks.
This is the second election in a row in which Egale offended the NDP. In 2004, Egale called on queers and their supporters to vote strategically to stop the Conservatives from coming to power.
It was a mistake — counterproductive even, conceded Egale executive director Gilles Marchildon in a December interview. Egale’s call got blended in with a Liberal call to vote strategically, and after the smoke cleared, a group of 12 or more pro-gay marriage NDP candidates (mainly in BC and Saskatchewan) narrowly lost seats to Conservative candidates as voters cast their ballots for the third-place local Liberal candidate. The impact: Same-sex marriage barely squeaked through Parliament this past summer and some longtime Egale supporters with ties to the NDP walked away from the gay lobby group after that display of political amateurism.
The NDP has its own policy flaws. It’s had a hard time shaking off the party’s prudish origins in the temperance movement. It’s had a particularly hard time getting its head around the need to eliminate laws regulating sexuality, including legislation against prostitution, bathhouses, anal sex and age of consent (though, admittedly, Vancouver East MP Libby Davies has charged to the forefront of the Canadian political scene on some of these issues in the last several years). And the NDP has a history of overlooking the importance of reaching out to cultural minorities — including failing to talk directly to minority communities by advertising in their media during election campaigns.
Those of us drawn to get involved with parties can do much by getting involved with the party that best reflects our overarching values and beliefs. One reason for our success in Canada has been our involvement in the apparatus of most parties — the NDP, Greens, Liberals and even the old Progressive Conservatives — and our willingness to vote across the spectrum. The Liberal Party was seeded decades ago with convention motions supporting gay rights. That effort bore fruit, no matter how bitter, when the Liberals in power chose not to invoke the notwithstanding clause to overturn Supreme Court decisions. It will be interesting to see how effective the small number of queers involved — as members, party insiders and even candidates — are behind the merged Conservative Party. There will be many eyes on Ottawa-area candidate John Baird if he wins his riding Jan 23.
Like all voters, lesbians and gays cast their vote based on a personal pastiche of many issues, not only a party’s stand on their own liberation. As time passes, our community’s voting patterns change. Even in the United States, where queers have received repeated legal and legislative setbacks and are less free now than they were a decade ago, some 26 percent of people who identified themselves as gay at exit polls voted Republican in the last national election — that’s increased by 400 percent over four elections. Over 90 percent of lesbians continue to support the Democratic Party. We don’t consistently measure such statistics in Canada, but it’s hard to imagine that the numbers are much different.
It is perhaps instructive that during this election, subscribers to one major gay e-mail list group expressed deeper anger of former Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer running on the NDP ticket — because he opposed gay rights two decades ago, a time when just about everyone opposed our equality — than the fact that more than three dozen people opposing gay equality were running on the Liberal ticket. Members wrote about how they could not vote NDP if Jack Layton allowed even one homophobe to run with his banner. What’s that about?
Is there something — other than panic at a Conservative majority government — that draws many queers to back the Liberals this election, despite their lukewarm treatment of our issues? Perhaps it’s that same something that draws so many of us to mainstream these days — a desire to fit in, not feel so different. After all, you can’t get much more mainstream than the Liberal party, which even calls itself Canada’s “naturally governing party.” It’s become that for a reason, despite the reality that this country’s most popular social programs are NDP policies usually forced on, and occasionally stolen by, the Liberals. The NDP is a party anchored in belief, political meaning and social democratic ideology. Perhaps a party with strong beliefs, filled with true-believer candidates, is a bit scary for those gay men and lesbians who want to feel normalized. The NDP was attractive in the day when no other party backed our issues in any way. Now that the Liberals at least don’t invoke the notwithstanding clause, maybe that’s good enough for some of us.
Of course, we’d not be the first major out-group to be drawn into the Liberals this way. The party’s success can be attributed largely to its genius at playing the politics of accommodation. While the NDP continues to plug away at ideological politics, a clash of ideas, the Liberals emphasize a politics that brings groups into the bosom of the Canadian state and the mainstream. The politics of accommodation brought us multiculturalism, bilingualism, the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and high rates of immigration and refugee settlement and, most recently, an accord with First Nations people. The Liberals have a way of integrating the needs of out groups into the fabric of Canada. In this process of accommodation, members of the out groups feel like they’ve been accepted into the mainstream. They begin to see the Liberal Party as synonymous with the government of Canada.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that many gay men and lesbians, eager for acceptance, respect and the normalization that comes with joining the mainstream, will be happy to overlook the many and very real flaws of the Liberal Party and hang on tight to the small concessions that Chrétien and Martin have thrown their way. They wouldn’t be the first and, I dare say, they won’t be the last.
Meanwhile, most politically active queers will continue plugging away at what they do. They know that the most important politics in our community aren’t the politics of official parties or elections but the politics of everyday life, of culture spawning and community building. Of lobbying for new legislation and the repeal of old dinosaur laws. At best, elections are the start of something; the important work in our community comes afterward. At worst, they spur us to newfound levels of activism as we go boldly forward to insist on our place in the sun.
Under the upcoming Harper government(s), the naturally governing party will have a chance to change leadership, gaze at its belly, and renew itself with a policy convention or two. Maybe it will become more truly gay-positive and sex positive. I wouldn’t hold my breath: it’s about as likely as the NDP leaving behind its ideologically driven politics. Meanwhile, most of us will live our lives, build our communities, and get involved to preserve and advance the miracle of gay life we have built in this nation in the past three decades, mostly despite the actions of political parties.