Openly gay United Church minister Rob Oliphant has launched a bid for the federal Liberal Party’s nomination in the riding of Don Valley West following the retirement from politics of longtime MP John Godfrey.
The riding’s perceived status as a safe Liberal seat — Godfrey has won the riding by more than 10,000 votes in each of the last five elections — has made the nomination a hot ticket contested by at least six declared candidates.
Oliphant is joined in the nomination race by former MP Sarmite Bulte, who lost her Parkdale-High Park seat in 2006 to the NDP’s Peggy Nash and vacated that riding’s nomination in favour of former party leadership contender Gerard Kennedy. Also seeking the nomination is former candidate Deborah Coyne who lost a 2006 race against NDP leader Jack Layton in Toronto-Danforth; former legislative assistant to David Collenette, Jonathan Mousley; local businessman Mohammad Ijaz; and local imam Abdul Ingar.
One-time Conservative candidate in Toronto Centre, Mark Warner, who claims he was dumped by his party in part for supporting queer and urban issues, has also expressed interest in joining the race but on his website claims he is still “considering whether to seek the Liberal nomination.”
Oliphant says he isn’t daunted by the number of opponents he faces.
“I’m in this race to win,” he tells Xtra. “I’m ready to take on Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.”
Of his well-established and experienced competition, Oliphant chuckles, “I’m hoping they’ll give me their second-ballot support.”
Oliphant previously considered running for the Liberal nomination in Toronto Centre when Bill Graham announced his retirement last year, but decided instead to support former Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae when he declared his candidacy.
Oliphant lives in Cabbagetown and his church is only one block west of the Don Valley West border. That so much of his congregation lives in the riding makes it an ideal place for him to launch a bid for Parliament, he says.
“I’m quite well known in the northern half of the riding,” Oliphant says. “I’ve got a base of support there.”
Should he win the nomination Oliphant says he wants to focus on poverty and issues of special interest to the riding’s large immigrant community.
“It’s got the full spectrum of urban issues that I’m interested in,” he says. “It includes Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, so there’s lots of issues around new Canadians, immigration and settlement, some pretty important poverty issues. It’s also got the wealthiest people in Toronto. That’s an interesting challenge to bridge those communities.”
But Oliphant bristles at the suggestion that he’s a “gay candidate” or that he should focus on queer issues.
“I sense that an intelligent, worldly thinking gay or lesbian person is going to raise the same issues of fairness or equality of opportunity that a straight person is going to raise,” he says. “I’m not running as a gay candidate but as a candidate who is a gay person. The issues and the agenda I bring must be shaped by my experience as a gay person. I have experienced discrimination, belittling, limitations placed on me structurally and visibly. In that sense, though I’m not an immigrant Canadian, I relate.
“I get tired of that agenda that is pretty narrow and self-serving at times,” he says. “I think gay and lesbian people at their best are involved in world issues and they should be. So the gay agenda is poverty, it’s immigration issues, it’s women’s rights.”
Still, Oliphant says that seeing gay and lesbian people succeed has an important impact on gay youth looking for role models.
“I think if there are young gay and lesbian people in my church who see me, they know I’m gay and they realize that there’s an opportunity for them to do what kind of work they want to do. Being a parliamentarian is part of that,” he says.
If Oliphant wins the nomination and the ensuing election it would be the first time any riding is represented by an openly gay or lesbian person at both the federal and provincial levels. Provincially the riding is represented by education minister Kathleen Wynne.
No date has been set for the nomination meeting yet by the Liberal Party. Whoever wins the nomination will then either run in the next federal election, or run in a by-election to be scheduled after Godfrey officially vacates his seat on Jul 1, whichever comes first. According to law the by-election is called at the prime minister’s discretion within six months of the seat becoming vacant.