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Were Pride Toronto’s focus groups stacked?

One participant goes on the record; Pride Toronto says it weeded out problems in advance

Participants in the 2009 Toronto Pride Parade. Credit: Peter Bevan photo

Focus groups conducted by conservative PR firm Navigator discussed censoring parade participants less than two months before Pride Toronto’s botched signage announcement.

Now, focus group participant Cathy Gulkin is charging that the focus groups were “stacked” and “not representative of the community.” She says four of the 10 women in her pool were there to call for the censorship of signs about political, non-queer issues and denounced Queers Against Israeli Aparthied (QuAIA)’s participation in the 2009 parade.

Although she says she’s not a member of QuAIA, Gulkin marched with the group in 2009.

However, her assertion is bolstered by two similar versions of an email obtained by Xtra that suggest there was an effort to fill the groups with people who want QuAIA banned from the parade.

One version of the email appears to be from Toronto lawyer Martin Gladstone, but Gladstone wrote to Xtra to clarify that he didn’t draft the letter.

“I never wrote or composed a letter of any nature asking people to attend,” he wrote. “There was one email in circulation that encouraged people to participate, which I forwarded to two people, and that was it. So this idea that I stacked and distorted the focus groups has no factual basis.”

The emails ask that those who are accepted for the groups get in touch with Carol Pasternak. Pasternak did not respond to Xtra’s requests for comment.

Pride Toronto has been in damage control since it announced on March 10 that, through an ethics committee, “Pride Toronto will now require all Pride Parade and Dyke March participants ensure their messages support the theme of the year’s festival.”

On March 16, Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands distanced herself from the original communiqué, telling Xtra a “freedom of expression policy” was in the works.

Earlier, Pride Toronto released a one-page summary of the focus groups. That document contains the question, “Is it possible to have an ethics committee that looks at the balance between corporate partners, politics and community representation?” That wording echoes Pride Toronto’s March 10 press release announcing its new signage policy.

Focus groups are one way to find out how people from a group feel about a given topic. It relies on the idea that a part can stand in for the whole. So long as participants are a representative sample of the larger group, the results can be quite potent. However, if the sample is skewed, it casts a shadow over the results.

Gulkin says she attended a Navigator-led focus group of lesbians over the age of 35 on Jan 26.

She says it was a group of four participants, not moderator Chad Rogers of Navigator, who introduced the subject of political, non-queer messaging and QuAIA.

“It was introduced by one of the members of the focus group, who said, ‘Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.'”

She says the group spent half of the two-hour discussion talking about political messages and QuAIA.

“I was quite happy to go, and talk about whatever the focus group leader wanted to talk about and express my opinions, unless there was an agenda being brought forward. Once that happened, we went with that agenda,” says Gulkin.

Pride Toronto, not Navigator, chose the participants of the focus groups, says Navigator’s Chad Craig. Although researchers would normally control the sample group, Pride Toronto conducted that part of the research to save money.

Craig would not say whether Navigator was confident about the results of the focus groups. Navigator’s opinion of the quality of the pool and its results are confidential, he says.

“We’ve clarified with Pride — I should say, Chad Rogers clarified with Pride — how confident we feel about our research,” Craig says.

In an interview with Sandilands on March 16, she told Xtra the results were “very valuable.”

Gulkin, meanwhile, says the results should be considered “null and void.”

Gulkin says she warned Sandilands there was an effort to stack the focus groups with people who wanted to oust QuAIA and all non-political messaging from the parade. Sandilands assured Gulkin that the groups would not be stacked, she says.

Sandilands told Xtra that she thought the focus groups had “a good mix” of people.

“There were a few people that we were able to indentify when they applied that were specifically, were particularly, trying to stack the focus group on that particular issue and we declined them to participate,” she says. “The rest, we took them at face value based on their age, their gender and their sexual identity. So, if the focus groups were stacked, it was done without any knowledge of ours.”

Sandilands did not return our calls for further comment.

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VERBATIM: Xtra chats with Navigator about the Pride Toronto focus group

On March 18, Xtra’s Marcus McCann chatted with Navigator’s Chad Craig.

XTRA: We’ve got people who are suggesting that there was an attempt to stack these focus groups. What I’m wondering is, what is the appropriate response to someone trying to stack the groups? As in, would it be appropriate for you guys to try to sort through the people who applied to participate, or would you cancel and reschedule? That’s the question that I’ve got.

CHAD CRAIG: In this case, I can say that, because Pride already said it, that Pride handled the recruitment for these groups. That was a decision that they made for financial reasons. How they handled that process, those questions, again, those questions have to go back to her.

XTRA: If it became apparent that the groups that you were dealing with were not reflective or representative, what effect would that have on the research that you did?

CRAIG: I don’t have the sense that the groups were unreflective, from what Tracey has said. But in this case again, I’m not the researcher, I’m a communications specialist. I’m not the right person to answer those questions.

XTRA: Okay. And the person who conducted the research has left?

CRAIG: Yeah, he left very recently to move to a different firm, a firm out of Ottawa, and I’m sorry but I don’t remember the firm. But Chad Rogers was actually the moderator.

XTRA: The question here is an important one, and I’m not just splitting hairs; there are emails that were circulating, purportedly, in January, about people who have a particular interest trying to fill up these groups with people who shared their opinions. I would think that Navigator, or any other research group, would be concerned about that — that that would affect how seriously they took the results of that focus group.

CRAIG: We’ve clarified with Pride — I should say, Chad Rogers clarified with Pride — how confident we feel about our research. You’d have to redirect those questions to Pride.

XTRA: Do you feel confident in the results?

CRAIG: Again, that’s a finding that I shared with Pride, and you’d have to ask Pride. We don’t discuss work that we’ve done with Pride with anyone other than the clients.

XTRA: So you won’t stand behind this research?

CRAIG: I would say we always stand behind our research. In terms of Pride’s research specifically, we don’t discuss specific research and you’d have to ask Pride.

VERBATIM: Xtra chats with Pride Toronto focus group participant Cathy Gulkin

On March 17, Xtra’s Marcus McCann spoke with Cathy Gulkin. Gulkin says she attended a Pride Toronto focus group of lesbians over the age of 35, one of several conducted by Navigator.

CATHY GULKIN: It started out just asking us what our experiences were, how long we’d been at Pride, what our experiences had been at Pride, then it got into what concerns we had…

So, eventually, it came around to political participation and that’s when the real discussion started. I was quite happy to go, and talk about whatever the focus group leader wanted to talk about and express my opinions, unless there was an agenda being brought forward. Once that happened, we went with that agenda.

XTRA: Do you feel — what was the agenda?

GULKIN: The agenda was, under the guise of saying that there should be no participation in the parade that isn’t specifically about LGBTTQQ… or however many letters…

XTRA: Queer?

GULKIN: Yes. That things that aren’t about queer issues should not be allowed in the parade. It was under that guise that they were going to try to have parade guidelines that would not allow us to talk about Israeli Apartheid.

XTRA: Was that introduced by members of the focus group or by Chad [Rogers]?

GULKIN: Yes. It wasn’t introduced by Chad [Rogers]. It was introduced by one of the members of the focus group, who said, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.” Because we were talking very vaguely about politics, you know, I was saying it’s great, it’s a great place to be political, and it’s always been political… [noise on the machine]

XTRA: Gotcha. So in terms of the moderator’s behaviour, did you get the sense that it was something that he was prepared for, or looking to bring out in the members?

GULKIN: No, absolutely not. He was ready for it, and he wasn’t surprised by it. He’d already made it quite clear that he’d seen… members had already shown him this purported picture of one of the people who marched with QuAIA sporting a swastika. It was an anti-Nazi… I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen the picture…

XTRA: The swastika with the —

GULKIN: With the banned sign on it. So in the discussion, which became quite heated, they said, “You guys were wearing swastikas.” I mean, I had not seen any swastikas, and that’s when the focus group moderator, Chad [Rogers], said, “I’ve seen pictures.” Now, I didn’t know about this whole kerfuffle, about this whole anti-Nazi logo at the time, so I thought “Well, if you’ve seen pictures, you’ve seen pictures. But I certainly didn’t see anything like that.”

He immediately supported their claim that that’s what happened. Since then, I’ve heard that there’s one doctored photo circulating, with the banned part, the circle with the line through it, taken out of that photo, so it did appear that a participant was wearing an actual swastika. I haven’t seen that, I’ve only heard about it. So I don’t know what Chad [Rogers] actually saw.

XTRA: So how long did this discussion in the focus group last?

GULKIN: I think we probably spent a good half of the focus group discussing it.

XTRA: So an hour?

GULKIN: Yes, around the political… yeah, probably a good hour. I know, because there were four of them and one of me and it was exhausting.

XTRA: And what were the other five women doing during this time?

GULKIN: There were only four other women…

XTRA: Sorry—

GULKIN: Oh! They were just listening in. And at one point one of them — and this was very disturbing after the claims that were made about swastikas being worn by QuAIA members, one of them turned to me and said, “Well, if you think that anyone with any politics should come in the march, what is to stop the Ku Klux Klan from marching with us.” And I thought, “Oh my god, this is how they frame the entire debate! It’s now gone from QuAIA wearing swastikas to the Ku Klux Klan is going to march.” I was really disturbed by that.

It was one of the reasons that after the focus group, I wrote to [Pride Toronto executive director] Tracey Sandilands, after I had in fact confirmed that there was no swastika worn by anyone in our contingent, that I deserved an apology, and that Chad [Rogers] should apologize to me, but also to email everybody to clarify that.

XTRA: And did that happen?

GULKIN: No. It didn’t happen. I waited a few weeks. She told me she was going to forward my email to Chad [Rogers]. I heard nothing. I wrote her back a few weeks later, and she just reiterated that for people who are sensitive to this, a swastika under any circumstances is inflammatory. It doesn’t matter that it was banned. It has the same emotional import. There was going to be no apology for it.

XTRA: Gotcha. There was also a note you wrote on one of the Facebook groups—

GULKIN: The Don’t Sanitize Pride Facebook group.

XTRA: Yes, the Don’t Sanitize Pride Facebook group that was—

GULKIN: Oh yes, that was toward the end of the discussion. Chad [Rogers] said, “What would you say if I told you that hundreds of thousands of corporate sponsorship dollars were at risk because of this controversy?”

And, I replied that it was the Zionists who started the controversy. If the Zionists had just let us march with our signs, there would be no controversy.

And second of all — and this is the part I didn’t post on the Facebook page for brevity’s sake — it is a privilege for corporations to sponsor Pride. They stand to make a lot of money from our community. They should be catering to us, not the other way around. And if we start changing our parade and the messages we send to make corporations happy, then why don’t we just all pack up and go home, because it isn’t a meaningful event anymore. We could just have a Disney Pride parade.