After a dramatic year-long leadership race that featured an astonishing number of lows and not too many highs, the Conservative Party has chosen perhaps the blandest possible option in former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer as its new leader.
Far from the worst choice, Scheer is no comfort to LGBT Canadians, except in that his leadership will likely ensure the Conservatives stay in the political wilderness for a while yet.
This was an ugly year for the Conservative Party. The leadership vacuum created when then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped down after the 2015 election allowed all the demons he’d barely repressed in the party to emerge with a vengeance.
Anti-Muslim bigots found their cheerleader in Kellie Leitch. Anti-LGBT and anti-abortionists found cheerleaders in Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux. Maxime Bernier courted so-called men’s rights activists — actually radical anti-feminists — with winking social media posts.
The handful of candidates who rejected social conservative and anti-immigrant messaging — Erin O’Toole, Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt, Deepak Obhrai — collectively earned less than 20 percent of the party vote on the first ballot.
In Scheer, the Conservatives have chosen a candidate who seeks to have it both ways on social issues. He is on the record opposing LGBT rights and abortion. He has voted against same-sex marriage and against C-16, the bill that would protect trans people from discrimination in federal jurisdictions, ban hate speech against trans people, and include anti-trans bias as an aggravating factor in hate-crime sentencing.
In an interview with the National Post, he says he considers many of these questions “settled” or constitutional issues that he’s not interested in pursuing as prime minister — similar to the line Harper peddled for years in office.
Scheer spoke in favour of ending the party’s official opposition to same-sex marriage at last year’s policy convention in Vancouver, yet when speaking with CBC’s Rosemary Barton, he refused to say he believes in equal marriage, leading Barton to finally suggest he’s “just going to live with it.”
And yet, hours after winning the leadership, he wouldn’t rule out repealing C-16 in the future, if the bill is passed.
True, this wishy-washy position didn’t endear him to the hardliners at the Campaign Life Coalition, who refused to endorse him. But social conservatives were celebrating his victory hard, and it’s clear that the voters who lined up behind Trost and Lemieux had moved their second and third choices to him.
It’s not as if Harper didn’t find a myriad of other ways to screw with our community over his time in office. A Scheer administration beholden to anti-LGBT voters will likely face pressure to cut funding to our programs and erase LGBT people from policy and communications. And we can be assured that whatever the Trudeau government doesn’t manage to get done by 2019 — an official apology/compensation, ending the gay blood donor ban, repealing the sodomy law, gender-neutral documents, increasing funding to promote LGBT rights abroad — wouldn’t find a champion in a Scheer government.
And Scheer’s signature policy idea — restricting funding to universities that insufficiently protect free speech (a code for restricting gruesome anti-abortion campaigns) — is a policy quagmire with an obvious blind spot for LGBT people. After all, if freedom is so important, what would Scheer say about Trinity Western University, whose covenant explicitly forbids gay sex, steeping the Langley campus and its students in a painful culture of shame?
Scheer’s apparent mantra — I oppose your fundamental rights but won’t do anything to hinder them because it’s politically unsellable — isn’t exactly a comforting message to the LGBT community, if for no other reason than it gives license to the bigots in society to be even more brazen against us.
Say what you will about Trudeau’s I love the gays but let’s take painfully slow baby steps toward progress PR campaign, but at least he’s setting the right tone.
It’s easy to see the logic behind otherwise socially progressive Conservative voters supporting Scheer — after all, this sort of mild antipathy won Harper three straight elections.
But the ground has — I suspect and hope — shifted in Canada. The next election will come nearly a decade after Harper’s last successful election. Dog whistles against LGBT people will likely not be as successful in the increasingly urban and multicultural Canada of 2019. Our growing visibility and acceptance across Canada has led to the passage of trans-rights bills in nearly every province and territory (with Yukon sure to complete the movement within weeks).
Time will tell if Scheer can rally enough Canadians to the Conservative Party to move him into 24 Sussex. But time doesn’t appear to be on his side.