Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister recently blasted Russia’s new anti-gay law as “mean-spirited and hateful.” Not a surprising remark coming from the Conservative caucus’ most outspoken advocate for gay rights, John Baird.
Baird’s passion and unequivocal pride as a gay-rights activist should be championed by the Conservatives, but, while some progress has been made, too few Tories seem to stand with Mr. Baird when it comes to issues surrounding the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community.
Take, for example, two crucial votes involving gay rights. In December 2006, John Baird was one of 13 Conservative MPs who voted against reopening the national debate on same-sex marriage. Almost seven years later, in March 2013, Baird was one of 18 Conservative MPs who voted in favor of Bill C-279, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination. That’s 18 Tory MPs out of the 155 that voted – a little more than 11 per cent of the caucus that participated in that particular reading.
The Canadian public, in contrast, has widely accepted, if not embraced, gay rights in our country. A Forum Research poll conducted in June 2012 found that 74 per cent of Canadians say they know someone who is part of the GLBT community, 28 per cent saying someone in their family is GLBT, and two-thirds saying they support gay marriage.
As recently as 2005, then-opposition leader Stephen Harper declared that “same-sex marriage is not a human right,” and that “when elected Prime Minister […] I will bring in legislation that will define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” Jason Kenney shared that sentiment and called marriage “tautologically a heterosexual institution.” MP Rob Anders asked constituents, prior to the 2006 federal election, if they “support homosexual sex marriage” on leaflets that inadvertently threw homosexuality in the same light as crime and the crystal meth.
But every political institution has something in the past they aren’t proud of, and admittedly, the Conservative Party has changed their tune since gaining power. It’s become a cornerstone of their foreign affairs policy to push for gay rights internationally. As Foreign Affairs Minister, Baird has not shied away from condemning countries like Uganda for their oppression of homosexual citizens, and more recently Russia, on their anti-gay legislation. The party even held a gathering for gay Tories, dubbed the Fabulous Blue Tent Party, which saw 700 gay Conservatives get together during the party’s 2012 convention in Ottawa.
This change of heart, whether from public pressure or because of more influential MPs like Baird, place the Conservatives on the right track, but much work still remains to be done before they can genuinely declare themselves as warriors for the gay rights movement. This is where John Baird could be their biggest ally.
But he can’t do it by himself. While Baird deserves all the credit in the world for taking the torch of gay rights and marriage equality abroad, this effort is meaningless if it’s ignored in the Conservative caucus at home.
Stephen Harper’s long-standing silence on the issue is because he either fears alienating the party’s extremist base or he secretly believes that gay people are second-class citizens. If it’s the former, then Canada has no international leverage until the Prime Minister himself openly supports what his Foreign Affairs Minister is so adamantly fighting for.
Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has become a vocal defender of gay rights. After successfully legislating gay marriage in his native country, a “landmark social change” as he remarked, he now openly calls for gay marriage to become legal around the world.
If Cameron can risk his leadership to stand up for marriage equality, then so can Stephen Harper – it’s the least he could do for Canada, the world, and for friends like John Baird.
Ashley Martyn is a volunteer for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this opinion piece incorrectly described the author's role with Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada.