Jason Kenney has condemned homophobic comments by one of his candidates while keeping the United Conservative on the ballot, a decision that comes as the party has had to grapple with a number of intolerant remarks made by office-seekers.
Allegations against the party’s candidates have posed recurring problems for Mr. Kenney less than two weeks before the April 16 Alberta election, and the conservative leader’s two main rivals have said his handling of the issue shows he is unfit to govern. They have also drawn comparisons to anti-gay remarks by a Wildrose Party candidate that cost that opposition party the 2012 provincial election.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kenney stood by candidate Mark Smith after a recording surfaced of a 2013 sermon he delivered in which he said television portrayals of LGBTQ relationships as “good love” are problematic. He then quickly added: “Heck, there are even people out there, I could take you, I could take you to places on the website, I’m sure, where you could find out that there’s, where pedophilia is love.”
Mr. Smith, first elected as an MLA for the right-wing Wildrose, one of the two parties that merged to form the United Conservative Party, had been Mr. Kenney’s education critic before the election call.
In late March, Mr. Kenney oversaw the resignations of Caylan Ford and Eva Kiryakos after intolerant comments made by the two UCP candidates in Calgary were revealed, but he said Mr. Smith had his support despite the five-year-old remarks.
“The comments, which he made several years ago, I found offensive and Mr. Smith has apologized for those. In the 16 months that I have been leader of the party, I had not seen him say or conduct himself in a way that demonstrates disrespect for other people,” Mr. Kenney said.
While candidates who resigned earlier in the campaign were replaced on the ballot, Friday was the deadline for candidate nominations. If Mr. Smith were forced from the ballot the party would not be contesting the riding in Drayton Valley, west of Edmonton, which is considered one of the most conservative seats in Alberta.
New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley, speaking in late March after Ms. Ford’s resignation after comments that used white-nationalist rhetoric, said: “I personally do not believe that Jason Kenney is racist, but I believe that the UCP as a party has a problem with racism.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Ms. Notley said Mr. Kenney had failed his test of leadership.
“I think many people today are quite shocked that Mr. Kenney thinks that he can just walk past the level of bigotry and divisiveness that was articulated by his hand-picked education critic and potential minister, and that Albertans won’t hold him to account,” she said.
The NDP Leader also noted that Mr. Smith wrote a letter to his fellow legislators after his election in 2015 in which he advocated that religious schools should be allowed to fire LGBTQ teachers.
Mr. Smith responded to the comments in a Facebook post. "My faith has informed my life in the community for 30 years. Importantly, that faith dictates that I respect the dignity of all human beings," he said. "I want to be abundantly clear: I do not in any way equate homosexuality with pedophilia. I never have. That was not the intent of my comments in 2013."
Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said the comments seemed to have less of an impact than similar issues that arose in the 2012 election. They may have lost their power to shock, she said, especially in a province where discussion has been dominated by concerns about the economy.
“Now, it seems as though many are willing to accept far, far more on xenophobia, homophobia and climate-change denial than before,” she said. “Either people regressed severely in their social outlook in less than a decade, or new voices have been activated and older democratic norms of inclusion no longer meaningfully apply.”
In the 2012 election, the Wildrose Party lost despite entering the final stretch of the election with a lead because then-leader Danielle Smith refused to boot a candidate who urged homosexuals to repent or face eternal damnation in a “lake of fire.”