8 min

Too close to call

Vancouver Centre race is a drama queen's delight

FLIPPED OUT ABOUT THE GAY VOTE. Vancouver Centre candidates flipped pancakes for the Vancouver Pride Society Jun 12 at the Fountainhead Pub. Pictured are candidates Conservative Gary Mitchell (left), Liberal Hedy Fry and NDP Kennedy Stewart. Credit: Kevin Teneycke

A sitting Liberal MP. A gay Conservative. An NDPer with a strong political background.

It’s a potent mix in Vancouver Centre which is making a three-way race one of the most watched in Canada. And it’s one which promises to be a squeaker come election night Monday.

The riding, which spreads from the shores of the Pacific, through one of Canada’s largest queer-populated neighbourhoods and into the more affluent West Side, boasts a diverse electoral demographic. And, in its century-long political history, it has been represented by an equally diverse range of MPs among whom can be counted a prime minister and a high-profile senator-both women.

And its voice has rarely been far from the cabinet table.

Incumbent MP Hedy Fry has sat at that table but was demoted in the wake of a 2001 misstatement that crosses were burning in Prince George.

While the mainstream media seems never to miss a chance to revive the statement, the fact is that Fry apologized for it. And it was an honest mistake. She had mistaken Prince George for Merritt, where several incidences of racist activity had occurred.

The vivacious doctor has remained popular since blazing onto the federal stage with her electoral trouncing of Prime Minister Kim Campbell in 1993.

However, missteps on the federal stage have been Fry’s undoing when it’s come to any cabinet yearnings.

After a 1993 reprimand from the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons for saying she’d given a patient with a medical plan a prescription knowing the woman’s lesbian partner without a plan would use the drugs, Jean Chrétien left her out of his first cabinet.

She eventually took her seat in cabinet with a junior post but was never again publicly touted as a senior minister in the Chrétien years.

Fry has, though, maintained commanding leads in subsequent votes. She bested the Reform challenger in 1997 by more than 9,000 votes, and queer NDPer Bill Siksay, now running to replace Svend Robinson in Burnaby Douglas, by more than 10,000 votes.

Fry held that lead in the 2000 vote, beating the Alliance candidate. Support for the NDP in that outing to the polls dropped significantly. (Curiously, the Green candidate in that election was transsexual activist Jamie Lee Hamilton, now working on the campaign of Liberal Shirley Chan who is looking to oust queer NDPer Libby Davies in Vancouver East.)

In the 2000 campaign, Fry’s party status was again shaken after she suggested Alliance leader Stockwell Day wanted to impose his Christian fundamentalist views on everyone.

Political missteps aside, the redoubtable Fry remains a contentiously popular and visible public figure. She has worked the streets of the West End, is known for her colourful dance down the street for the Pride Parade, and has repeatedly gone barhopping to meet the queer community.

It remains to be seen, however, how far party loyalties will go should Fry regain her seat. While out of favour with Chrétien, Fry has long been a supporter of Paul Martin, a loyalty that could benefit Vancouver Centre.

With a week to go in the election, the NDP released an internal poll showing Stewart ahead of Fry by 16 points in the race. Suddenly, Stewart was catapulted into position as the best strategic choice for voters hoping to stop a Conservative victory. Perhaps polling results explain Fry’s performance in the Jun 16 all-candidates debate sponsored by the Gay & Lesbian Business Association and Xtra West. In the same debate in the past two elections, Fry easily walked off the winner. Not this time. Even an applause meter would have been hard-pressed to choose who received the heartiest endorsements-although queer Conservative Gary Mitchell alternately took applause while stoically accepting all of the evening’s boos and hisses.

In much of the queer community, Mitchell, a businessperson and waiter, has been seen as a contradiction: How can a gay man run as a Conservative? many have asked. He’s reported to have had a rough ride while campaigning in gay bars, whereas Kennedy Stewart has received a better than expected reception in the bars.

“Being gay has no political home,” Mitchell told the audience. “We’ve got to stop stereotyping each other. It only marginalizes people.”

Almost symbolically, Kennedy Stewart stood on stage between Fry and Mitchell. Stewart has proved an educated and articulate NDP candidate who could be the spoiler in the race.

When it came to explaining the issues to the audience, Fry stood on her record in the gay community.

“I realized this was the only minority group in Canada that was discriminated against in law,” she said. “We managed to bring in every piece of legislation that makes same-sex couples equal to straight couples.”

It was a pointed reference to a Jun 4 news item in which Mitchell had suggested queer rights have been won through Parliament. In point of fact, queers have had to resort to the courts to win those rights.

Fry did not escape the crowd’s criticism on the equality issue, though.

Murray Warren, who spent years in the courts to win the right to marry his partner, asked Fry why the government had spent so much time and energy challenging the lawsuits. She responded that there had been division in the Liberal party on the issue so it was sent to the courts.

Mitchell used that Liberal split to defend his own stand, saying the division mirrored the same debate in the Conservative Party.

However, Mitchell did not escape the crowd’s wrath.

Lloyd Thornhill also resorted to the courts to win the right to marry his partner of 36 years. He asked Mitchell about the declaration by his leader, Stephen Harper, that he wouldn’t let judges make law. Cries of “shame, shame” rang from the crowd.

Mitchell countered: “If I thought I was going to be part of a party that would take away your rights, I wouldn’t be standing up here.”

Acknowledging there are those in his party with deeply-held religious convictions, Mitchell pledged to stand up for equal rights in his caucus. And, he said, he’d quit if his party invoked the notwithstanding clause to prevent same-sex marriages.

“Yes, I will resign and I will start a ruckus in doing so,” he said. “I’m helping to keep Harper in line.”

Fry, too, said she’d quit if her party threatened to invoke the nothwithstanding clause, while Stewart said his queer-populated caucus would likely throw him out first if he supported such a move.

Harper has said there would be a free vote on same-sex marriage in Parliament. That, Fry says, is just another chance for the Conservatives MPs to vote in lockstep, something she’s seen in the house many times before.

Stewart, however, levelled his guns at both Mitchell and Fry, demanding that the major parties declare their platform positions on same-sex marriage. He accused the Liberals of pushing difficult issues into the Supreme Court to avoid dealing with them during the election.

Across the country, Conservatives have echoed the refrain that the issue would be put to a free vote in Parliament.

“We need to know before the election,” the Simon Fraser University professor said, declaring his support for same-sex marriage. “Human rights cannot be subjected to a free vote in Parliament.”

Mitchell pledged he would put forward a private member’s bill to accept the Supreme Court reference on same-sex marriage when it comes.

However, very few private member’s bills see light of day in Parliament.

One that did was Svend Robinson’s C-250 on adding sexual orientation to the hate propaganda laws. While it was narrowly passed in Parliament, Fry said she worked hard to ensure it did.

Mitchell was again put on the defensive. How could he be trusted if the Progressive Conservatives who supported C-250 had not joined the new Harper Conservatives? one audience member asked.

“I don’t ask you to believe me; just watch me,” Mitchell responded, invoking the phrase made famous by the Liberal Pierre Trudeau at the peak of the FLQ Crisis.

Trudeau was not the only former prime minister invoked that night.

The audience erupted in support when Fry reminded everyone that former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark said he did not want Harper in the office he once occupied.

That applause in a theatre packed with members of the gay community is something all candidates should take to heart. Vancouver Centre is one of four or five ridings across the country in which the gay community could make a major difference in the election outcome. Another is Calgary Centre, where the queer community mobilized to defeat incumbent Alliance MP Eric Lowther in the 2000 election. Queers were asked to cast their ballot for Clark. He won by more than 4,000 votes.

Fry has repeatedly earned more than her share of the gay vote-she’s particularly popular with the drag queen and nightclub set. But Fry has also cried wolf twice-asking the gay community to vote strategically for her in 1997 and 2000 out of fear of an anti-gay Reform/Alliance government. Election results showed Fry’s lead was so large that she did not need the gay community to vote strategically.

The Jun 28 vote is the 27th time Vancouver Centre will select a member of Parliament-and the closest race since 1988. Representation has flipped mainly between the Liberals and Conservatives over the years but the CCF and its successor, the NDP, have never been far off the pace.

The riding was first represented in 1914 by Henry Herbert who ran initially under the Conservative banner, then as a Unionist and twice more as a Conservative until his defeat in 1930. He was defeated by Ian MacKenzie by 2,000 votes with 22,000 votes cast.

In the 1945 vote, George Isherwood of the CCF came close to unseating MacKenzie but when the latter was appointed to the Senate in 1948, the CCF’s Rodney Young took the seat. It was short-lived, though. Ralph Campney took the seat for the Liberals in 1949, defeating Young by almost 4,000 votes.

The pendulum swung the other way in 1957 when Progressive Conservative Douglas Jung won the seat, defeating Campney by almost 5,000 votes. In 1959, Jung held the seat with an almost 4-1 margin over the Liberal candidate.

These were the Diefenbaker glory years of Tory supremacy which would not rise again until the emergence of Brian Mulroney in 1984.

But, in 1962, Jung too was ousted. Liberal Jack Nicholson won by less than 1,000 votes with Jung followed closely by the NDP contender. He held on until 1968 when Liberal Ron Basford was elected with an almost 2-1 margin in the vote which brought Trudeau to power.

Basford stayed in office until he passed the Liberal flag to Art Phillips who squeaked in with less than a 100 vote lead over Tory Pat Carney in a 1979 by-election. She took the seat in a three-way race in 1980. While the battle for second was close, Phillips was beaten by the NDP candidate.

Carney took the riding again in 1984 but passed the flag to Kim Campbell in 1988. The NDP was again close, nipping at Campbell’s heels, less than 300 votes behind.

With Campbell running as a lame duck prime minister in 1993, Fry took the seat by almost 4,000 votes-and more than 9,000 ahead of lesbian NDP candidate Betty Baxter.

The Trinidad-born doctor confirmed she was not a flash-in-the-pan electoral reaction to the Mulroney legacy when she beat her Reform rival in 1997, and Canadian Alliance challenger in 2000. Heading into this campaign, Vancouver Centre remained the safest federal Liberal seat in the province.

Today, Fry is facing the sort of deep-seated voter distrust of the Liberals that helped her defeat Campbell in 1993. Whiffs of scandal and accusations of arrogance taint the campaign, even in a riding that has preferred to vote Liberal unless there’s a national Tory landslide underway.

And, in much the same way that the federal Liberals have been hurt by promises broken by new Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, Fry may well also have to fight against the distrust British Columbians have developed toward Gordon Campbell’s Liberals.

But while the bulk of the seats in BC could remain Conservative, Fry remains one of the few Liberals in the province with a good chance of retaining her seat. But, it also remains hers to lose.