Suicide prevention
4 min

Open letter to Stephen Harper

BY ROB SALERNO – An open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper regarding the Conservative Party of Canada’s new It Gets Better video:

Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper,

Let me first acknowledge the contribution your party has made to the worldwide It Gets Better Project by launching a video featuring your MPs, senators and staffers encouraging struggling gay kids to seek help instead of committing suicide. 

I know queer activists have been calling on the government to make an It Gets Better video since shortly after the project launched last September. Yes, I realize that most of them were actually trying to embarrass you over your gay rights record, but baby steps should be applauded and recognized as the opportunity to start a dialogue.

I notice that you’re not in the video yourself. I’ll take that to mean that this is just a rehearsal for the eventual Stephen Harper It Gets Better video. After all, if Barack Obama and David Cameron can both release It Gets Better videos, why can’t our prime minister? 

I’m writing because I’d like to offer you some tips for when you do create your own It Gets Better video.

First, before recording your video, take a few minutes to find a room that’s not so noisy, turn on some lights, and maybe don’t record it on an iPhone. This will ensure that desperate kids won’t turn the blurry, echoey message off after 10 seconds. 

Second, part of the problem with this video is that it’s not very personal. Simply repeating the phrase “It Gets Better” isn’t going to reassure someone who’s considering suicide, especially delivered by a parade of MPs robotically saying “It Gets Better” through bizarre rictus smiles. In fact, repeating any message over and over again generally makes it less powerful, not more, because it gives the impression you have nothing to back it up (see also “gravy train"). None of the participants in the video offers any personal stories about their own struggles in their youth and how they overcame them. How do they know it gets better if they’ve never had it worse? 

I know this won’t be a problem for you because you were on your high school’s Reach for the Top team (psst, so was I!), and I’ve seen your high school graduation yearbook photo:

I note that under “memories” you didn’t list any friends. I can only imagine the swirlies you suffered on a daily basis as a teenager, and now you’ve ascended to the most powerful job in Canada. That’s a truly inspiring story that you should share more often.

(I also note that your pet peeve is reality, so I guess I understand your decision to can the mandatory long-form census and your government’s steadfast insistence that crime is increasing despite figures proving otherwise. I digress.)

Finally, another reason that this video’s message falls flat is because the people appearing in it are, how shall I say it, not the greatest champions of gay people. 

Look, I have no doubt that your MPs, senators and staffers don’t actually want gay kids to kill themselves. But their records don’t show a lot of support for gay kids or for the adults they’ll become when it’s supposed to get better. 

Let’s talk about Senator Don Meredith, who says being gay is a choice. His presence in the video is a little confusing, as if to say, “It’ll get better once you choose not to be gay and you choose not to be picked on every day.”

Let’s also talk about Vic Toews. He campaigned vociferously against the bill that added sexual orientation to Canada’s hate propaganda law, on the grounds that spreading hate speech about gays is a fundamental Canadian freedom. Yes, that was eight years ago, but he never apologized for that or recanted his position. In fact, in 2005, he led a filibuster in Parliament to hold up the passage of Canada’s same-sex marriage laws. His presence in the video is like telling kids “It gets better, but against my wishes.”

Deepak Obhrai and Rona Ambrose also voted against same-sex marriage in 2005.

Then there’s John Baird. Gee, this is awkward. Because at the end, Baird tells kids who see other kids being bullied that they should “be an ally, be a friend. Don’t stay silent. Help them.” Baird’s actually been one of your most queer-friendly MPs, and we’re really grateful for that. But then, you see, there’s this whole thing… Yeah? Having Baird in the video is almost like saying, “It gets better as long as you never, ever, tell anyone you’re gay.” 

In fact, all the MPs exhorting the viewer to“be an ally, be a friend” also kind of misses the point. The video is supposed to be for the gay kid considering suicide, not for your random straight constituents who might stumble upon it. Reminding them that they don’t have allies or friends might actually make their depression worse. What you should say in your video is, “If someone’s picking on you, or bullying you, I’m your ally. I’m your friend. You can be confident that your prime minister and your government stands behind you.”

The only caveat then, is that you’ll have to back that up with your future words and deeds. 

I’m not saying that people who’ve disagreed with gay rights in the past can’t help out at all. But perhaps if they’re going to be a part of the project, a more meaningful contribution would be to explain how their opinions have changed over time and why they’re now supporters of queer people.

So I hope you do get a chance to make an It Gets Better video, Mr Harper. Perhaps you can even ask David Cameron for tips when you’re at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, where you’ve just announced that you’ll join in his campaign to have Commonwealth countries decriminalize gay sex. It would be great timing, too, to release such a video just as you’re taking part in a real effort to improve the lives of gay people the world over.  

But please, if you do make a video, be sincere, be honest, be open, and own up to your own mistakes. Otherwise, the best message you can offer to young people struggling with their sexuality is that it’ll get better in a few years, when you’re not running the country. 

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