Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Gay community vows to fight Harper

Reacts with alarm to Harper's same-sex marriage pledge

Greg Bonnell, Canadian Press

Published: Monday, December 26, 2005

It's hardly a secret that Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are less then popular in Canada's gay communities.

And jumping headlong into the same-sex marriage issue at the outset of the federal election campaign did little to bolster Harper's image among that segment of voters.

But aside from that, the prime ministerial hopeful may yet want to consider how family ties can also affect balloting in the Tory heartland.

"I'm from Alberta originally, and my family is there,'' Doug Kerr, 38, said recently as he drank coffee with friends near Toronto's Church and Wellesley streets, the epicentre of homosexual life in the city.

"They're Conservative (supporters), but they're pro same-sex marriage. I think they're having second thoughts about Harper,'' since he raised the issue, said Kerr, who works as a manager in the non-profit sector.

"There are more important issues in Canada, and it's a real shame that it had to be raised. It may have lost him votes.''

With the election buses barely heated up, Harper opened the election campaign Nov. 29 by vowing a Conservative government would allow a free vote in the Commons on restoring the traditional definition of marriage.

The statement, offered without provocation or prodding from the media, thrust back into the spotlight an issue that pundits say cost Harper dearly in the 2004 election, especially in vote-rich Ontario.

Gay, lesbian and transgendered communities across Canada went on high alert.

"The initial (reaction) was total paranoia in my circles,'' said Michael Hendricks, a Montreal gay-rights activist who married his longtime partner Rene Lebeouf in 2004.

The issue dominated discussion among the couple's friends for days, until logic prevailed.

"Somebody finally had the intelligent idea to remember that Harper isn't elected yet,'' said Hendricks.

"That seemed to secure everybody. They quieted down and the subject hasn't come up again. Just that one shot.''

For Vancouver's gay community, Harper's words are very much a live issue.

Jim Deva, co-owner of the controversial Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium, says Harper made the comments early in the campaign for good reason -- namely to shore up support among gay marriage opponents while hoping the broader electorate simply forgets the issue by election day.

"I see it as our job, the (gay) community's job, to just keep bringing the issue forward, that this is a constitutional challenge,'' said Deva.

"This isn't just about marriage, this is about what the Constitution means to you.''

While Harper, if elected, would allow a free Commons vote on the definition of marriage, he promised not to challenge the 3,000 gay marriages already performed in Canada nor invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to overturn the law.

Given that, experts say it's unlikely a Conservative government could revoke rights already granted by lower courts when they ruled the traditional definition of marriage was discriminatory.

Legal arguments notwithstanding, Harper's attack on gay marriage will not soon be forgotten.

"I assume it means he's written off the gay community,'' Anton Wagner, a documentary filmmaker, said while sitting in the Toronto coffee shop with Kerr.

The prospects of Harper abandoning the homosexual vote, and those of straight Canadians who support same-sex marriage, concerns Wagner.

More specifically, the 56-year old filmmaker worries Quebeckers angry at the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal will cast votes for the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

"In terms of national unity, I'm concerned the Conservatives have no representation in Quebec,'' said Wagner.

For same-sex supporters living outside of Quebec, the Conservative stance also narrows the field somewhat, observed Kerr.

"For a lot of people that are angry at the Liberals, (Harper's words) are frustrating,'' said Kerr.

"There are people who would like change, but that's not where we want to go. So what are the alternatives? It's really unfortunate.''

The ideal outcome for Wagner is a Parliament much like the one that fell last month, with one modification.

"My hope is that it's a Liberal minority with the NDP holding the balance of power, with a stronger NDP representation.''

© Canadian Press 2005

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