10 min

‘Thanks Bob, for nothing’

Bob Rae's limp-wristed legacy bodes trouble for gay Canadians

Bob Rae has been an articulate and thoughtful proponent of gay rights. And that’s exactly why his return to federal politics may be a disaster for Canada’s gay and lesbian communities.

Rae recently won the Liberal nomination in Toronto Centre, Canada’s largest gay riding. He aspires to be prime minister and, while he lost the Liberal leadership race last fall, many believe he’ll step up if Stéphane Dion loses the next election.

But Rae’s legacy reveals disturbing questions for gay voters.

As premier of Ontario in the mid- 1990s, Rae had everything lined up to hit a home run for the province’s homosexuals. His own attorney general had introduced sweeping spousal rights legislation for same-sex couples, in keeping with party policy and promises. Rae expressed passionate support for the bill, and led a majority government that could deliver the goods.

But the legislation failed dramatically, creating huge shockwaves of anger in the gay community after a bitter public debate.

If Rae couldn’t deliver on gay rights when he had both the power and the will, how can we trust him to deliver for us, ever?

And just how exactly did he fuck up his big chance to win rights for Ontario’s gay men and lesbians?

Second-class citizens

Despite growing acceptance, gay Canadians remained outsiders in the early ’90s, excluded by law and custom from much of mainstream society.

Where the law was concerned, we were newly resident in a few provincial human rights codes, protected at last from being fired or denied housing just because we were queer. But in our relationships we lived outside the law, which treated us decidedly as second-class citizens.

The situation was rife with impracticalities and unpleasant barriers. Gay and lesbian parents, for instance, raised their partner’s children but had no legal relationship to them.

Consequently, the motivation behind the fight for spousal rights was different than in the gay marriage battle that followed. Marriage activists would speak of formal equality and symbolic acceptance, and many gay people weren’t sure they believed in marriage at all.

In the ’90s, activists sought basic and necessary relationship recognition, the denial of which had demonstrable, sometimes devastating effects on people’s lives.

For the liberationists among us, the fight for spousal rights merely moved the line of discrimination, proposing to benefit traditional couples — gay or straight — at the expense of those who chose other living arrangements. However, our rightwing foes’ specific contempt for gay spousal unions was the biggest barrier to recognizing other types of relationships.

Ultimately, AIDS highlighted the discrimination affecting our communities, including gay men living in unconventional relationships.

A decade of AIDS had taught us that when second-class citizens start dropping like flies, society will shrug its shoulders ever so slightly. AIDS also showed us precisely how unrecognized relationships could augment suffering and hardship.

Stories abounded of extreme cruelty facilitated by the legal void. Gay men were denied visitation rights as their longtime lovers lay dying in hospitals. Surviving partners had no legal right or recourse when homophobic families swept in to claim estates. Spousal rights became an urgent priority.

Thus the fight for relationship recognition would gain broad and deep support among gay men and lesbians. Whatever one’s relationship status or political persuasion, the discrimination resonated as hurtful and dehumanizing.

The NDP’s queer years

Gay men and lesbians flocked to the NDP during this era. In the 1980s, the party had pushed for the passage of Bill 7, which added sexual orientation to Ontario’s human rights code. Rae attended a high-profile gay rights rally in Toronto just before the legislation passed.

By the time Rae became premier in 1990, the NDP enjoyed a reputation as the preferred party of urban homosexuals. Right off the bat, Rae stated to gay activists, “I want to assure you of our continuing support for equal treatment of same-sex couples.” The next year, his party created a policy on same-sex rights that was described as mirroring the gay activist agenda. In the spring of 1993, Rae reiterated his commitment to that agenda as activists made noises about his delays in introducing legislation.

The following winter, with no legislation in sight, gay activists staged a sit-in outside Rae’s office. Soon afterward, his caucus voted to proceed, but a month later there was still no news. One hundred demonstrators protested the government’s stalling outside the office of attorney general Marion Boyd.

In the spring Boyd announced that legislation would go forward, but with a worrisome caveat: Rae would allow a free vote. Despite clear party policy on the issue, there was significant dissent in the caucus and Rae had made a decision to defer to the dissenters.

Bill 167 was introduced on May 19. Proposing to change dozens of laws to include same-sex couples, the bill squeaked through first reading by just a handful of votes. On Jun 9, Rae spoke eloquently in the legislature before the second vote.

“It’s important that we reflect for a moment on the pain and suffering and hardship which the kind of discrimination, not only in the law but in terms of social attitudes, has caused to thousands and thousands of people,” he said.

At one point, the premier adopted a queer point of view for rhetorical flourish: “We live on your streets, we live in your apartment buildings, we own houses, we pay taxes, we contribute to society and we work at every level of our society.”

Rae was relying on the Liberals and Tories to make up for the defectors he had chosen to coddle in his own party, despite announcements from Tory leader Mike Harris and Liberal leader Lyn McLeod that they would not support the bill.

He even offered to water down the bill the day before the vote, omitting controversial provisions for adoption rights and the redefinition of the word “spouse.” There were no takers. Twelve NDP members — the Dirty Dozen, as they came to be known — voted against their government’s human rights legislation. The bill was defeated by a vote of 59 to 68.

Public outrage

Incensed by the vote, activists shouted from the public galleries. Police and security guards — wearing rubber gloves — forceably removed them and pushed demonstrators down the steps of the legislature.

“The defeat of the NDP government’s same-sex bill did not merely occur on the plane of abstract principle,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom the next day. “It was also about a living, breathing group of people — a group already considered disease-infested outsiders who, authorities figure, literally must be handled with rubber gloves.

“‘Shame,’ the demonstrators shouted. They were right.”

Two hours later, a crowd of 10,000 took to Toronto streets in a show of anger not seen since the bathhouse raids of 1981. There were the usual pointy-haired punks, bespectacled leftists and dishevelled students, but the crowd was full of others who were unfamiliar to seasoned downtown protesters.

Dowdy suburban lesbians strode alongside fussy, wizened gentlemen, all possessed of a startling ferocity. This was no half-baked rainbow coalition; we recognized in each other’s eyes the flash of a shared rage at justice denied and discrimination endured. We were a single entity, a furious human river.

Panicky marshals pleaded for calm and implored the crowd to go home or retire to the bars. Violence, they reminded us nervously, would not solve anything. The crowd speculated: Were marshals concerned for our safety? Or did they fear television cameras would capture us in an unflattering light, confirming for the couch potatoes at home that legislators were right to declare us unworthy?

In Ottawa, demonstrators assembled just an hour after the bill’s defeat. In a political town, the savvy protesters knew who was to blame and their anger focussed squarely on Rae and the NDP.

Carl Stewart, a former federal NDP employee, shredded his NDP membership card before television cameras. “I’m ripping up my membership card because Bob Rae betrayed every gay and lesbian in Ontario,” Stewart told Capital Xtra. “I’m sending back my card. Thanks Bob, for nothing.”

“If you want to belong to the New Democratic Party, read the bloody policy book,” said David Pepper, who had worked as an assistant to then-MP Svend Robinson. He issued a warning to the Dirty Dozen. “If you have an ounce of homophobia, an ounce of racism, an ounce of sexism, you can go shop elsewhere. So next time you show up at a nomination meeting or a convention, we’re going to have our way with you.”

Capital Xtra held the presses to break news in Ottawa while Xtra published a special bulletin overnight in Toronto, so that full coverage would hit the streets in both cities by the next morning.

Party’s over

Rae’s failure with Bill 167 had wide repercussions. The NDP instantly lost its status as the default party for gay Ontarians. Before long, the Liberals would prove adept at delivering on relationship rights. Even gay Tories began to peek out of closets.

For progressives of all sexual orientations, the bill’s defeat confirmed their worst fears about a party that, by virtue of its principal residence in opposition, could talk big without having to pony up.

Despite its record in smaller provinces, many supporters had worried about the party’s inexperience in government and how it would balance the books.

But surely the NDP could be relied upon to deal effectively with rights issues. For the party to fail so utterly and fumble its own social justice legislation was as laughable as it was tragic. Who could take them seriously?

As it turns out, the disillusionment was misplaced. BC’s NDP government would prove just a year later that the party could successfully navigate controversial issues like gay adoption. The disappointment ought to have rested, not with the NDP generally, but specifically with Rae and his team.

Still, queers who abandoned the party would harbour longstanding grudges. In 2003, when longtime politico Chris Phibbs ran for Toronto city council, she refused calls from party leaders to seek the NDP nomination — because of Bill 167.

Rae’s blame game

During the lead-up to the 1995 provincial election, Rae addressed a meeting of the Fraternity, a Toronto group of gay professionals. A Toronto Star headline summed up his speech: “Rae blames gays for same-sex rights loss.”

Rae wrote a letter to the Star, claiming, “At no time were my comments intended to blame the gay and lesbian community….” But to this day, when Rae comments on Bill 167, he assumes the pose of an innocent bystander.

In an interview with a University Of Toronto newspaper in 1996, Rae was asked why his same-sex rights bill failed. “There was no search for compromise in the gay and lesbian community,” he said. “It was a collective failure.”

In his 1996 memoir, From Protest To Power, Rae complained that the gay community “demanded the whole loaf, or nothing.”

Just last month, an Xtra reporter asked Rae about the bill’s demise. “I share the disappointment of a lot of people,” he replied, as though someone else had been premier at the time.

There’s something deeply unsettling about Rae’s continued evasion of responsibility on the issue. During his bid for the Liberal leadership last year, he repeatedly accepted blame for many of his shortcomings as Ontario’s premier — but not for Bill 167. As long as he continues to pass the buck on the bill, we can assume there are no lessons learned.

Anatomy of a failure

No one expected that passing Bill 167 would be a walk in the park. But what exactly went wrong?

For starters, Rae waited too long in his government’s term to introduce the legislation. Smart governments deal swiftly with initiatives that involve significant controversy or change, so that people have time to adjust, evaluate or simply forget before it’s time to vote again.

The government also failed to accompany the legislation with a public relations and education campaign. Rae knew the legislation was a hard sell, even within his own party, and yet he failed to devise an appropriate sales strategy.

Political scientist David Rayside assessed the bill’s failure in his book On The Fringe: Gays And Lesbians In Politics. Appropriately, the analysis contains a section entitled “Political Ineptitude.” Rayside points out that the offices of both the premier and the attorney general were ill-equipped to deal with the issue.

“The absence of handling by [Boyd’s] office was not made up by the premier’s office, though intervention from that quarter would normally be more prominent on difficult issues,” he wrote.

“A number of aides at Queen’s Park and activists outside the legislative system have commented on the absence of even apparent activity from Rae’s inner circle. As someone intensely involved in the issue commented, ‘The premier’s office had absolutely nobody managing the issue.’ “

As for Rae’s charge that gay activists refused to compromise, it fails to satisfy: That’s what activists do; it’s their job. Rae was free to depart from the activist agenda, and in the end that’s what he did, surrendering adoption rights like a pair of scissors at airport security.

The free vote stands out as a key error. Rae conceded in his memoir that a free vote “created problems because it ended up allowing a bitter and divisive public debate.” It’s impossible to know how the debate might have unfolded had Rae made a decisive and principled commitment to pass the legislation. Certainly he was a fool to rely on the opposition parties to pass his own legislation for him.

Everybody’s doing it

Ontario’s spousal rights legislation would have been unprecedented in Canada had it passed. Still, despite the novelty of Bill 167, other governments managed to pass similar legislation in short order.

In 1995 BC’s NDP government allowed same-sex couples to adopt and, two years later, began to amend the definition of spouse to include gay and lesbian couples. In fairness to Rae, his Ontario bungle provided them with a detailed road map of what not to do.

Even subsequent Ontario premier Mike Harris, our ardent foe, left a better gay rights legacy than Rae. When the Supreme Court ruled on the landmark M versus H case in 1999, Harris accepted the consequences with resignation.

“We’ll have to conform with the law — and we will,” Harris told reporters, noting his own distaste for the idea. “It is not my definition of family, but it is of others.”

The name of the Tory spousal rights bill crackled with sarcasm. It was called An Act To Amend Certain Statutes To Ensure Their Constitutionality Because Of The Supreme Court Of Canada Decision In M Versus H. But Harris passed it with an efficiency Rae could never muster.

The next year, for better or worse, the federal Liberals recognized gay couples in common-law partnerships. The following year, other provinces began to change their laws: Nova Scotia became the first province to create a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba doled out spousal rights.

An A for effort?

Initial anger over Bill 167 may have focussed on Rae, but over time he would emerge relatively unscathed. Liberal leader Lyn McLeod is most often associated with the bill’s defeat. Her famous flip-flop — pledging and then withdrawing her support for spousal rights — destroyed her reputation and helped finish her career.

How is it that Rae can waltz into the gay community after all these years as though nothing happened?

Likely, he relies on the general tendency of voters to judge words over deeds. Rae is, after all, good with words and boasts an impressive verbal record on gay and lesbian rights.

Then there’s the regrettable Canadian tendency to award an A for effort, regardless of the outcome. It doesn’t matter who wins, we like to say, it’s how you play the game. Rae had the best of intentions and, for some, it’s the thought that counts.

Unfortunately, the next generation of queer issues may be even more contentious than spousal rights were last decade. Canada’s sex laws need to be overhauled so that consensual sex becomes lawful in its varied configurations. We need articulate politicians to champion freedom of expression and to fight censorship.

Bill 167, with its lovey-dovey couples and motherless children, will seem quaint by comparison. Then there are our big cities, the natural habitat of homosexuals. They need serious investment and self-determination, but federal governments have not been forthcoming.

If Rae expects queer votes, he needs to offer us compelling reasons to trust him to deliver — not promise, but deliver — on specific issues.

But first, he really needs to own up to his central role in the betrayal of those gay men and lesbians he now seeks to represent.