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The Globe and Mail

Foes blast Ford over decision to skip Pride parade

He's marched with the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and St. Patrick's Day revellers, but Toronto's mayor won't be joining the city's annual Pride Parade.

Rob Ford is skipping the celebration that draws roughly half a million people to Toronto's streets to spend the Canada Day weekend in cottage country with his family. That decision - which breaks a tradition of mayors marching that spans more than a decade - is a reminder, say leaders of the gay community, of how fragile the gains are that they have made. Showing up for Pride, they say, would be an easy way for the mayor to show support for an important part of the Toronto community. Taking a pass, they say, sends the wrong message.

The mayor and his city councillor brother Doug say they are just maintaining another tradition - spending the national holiday with family.

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"As long as I can remember, since I was a little boy, we always used to go up north to our cottage and I am carrying on the tradition that my father had," the mayor said Wednesday when asked about his plans for the Pride weekend. "We are there every year and we are going to continue there."

For those looking for signs of support from the city's new conservative mayor, his absence from the Sunday long-weekend event reinforces fears that they are in danger of losing important ground.

"There have been a lot of hard-won and incremental gains over the years, for lesbians and gays in this country but they are all easily reversible," said Francisco Alvarez, the co-chair of Pride Toronto. "It may seem to someone who grew up watching Will and Grace that this is the normal state of affairs, but it's not and it is fragile.

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, a veteran activist in the gay community, characterized the mayor's decision as a missed opportunity.

"I think given the past historical remarks that he has made, for him to step forward and to march during this Pride weekend would have made a difference and would have gone a long way in making amends with the community," she said.

During his decade as a councillor for Etobicoke, Mr. Ford made comments considered by many as homophobic, including the suggestion that "if you're not doing needles and you're not gay, you won't get AIDS, probably." As mayor, his was the only vote against restoring provincial funds for syphilis and HIV screening programs.

Janet Davis, another progressive member of city council, said the mayor's decision not to march is indicative of his feelings toward the gay community. "I think he is sending a very clear message that they don't count in Rob Ford's city," she said.

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Mr. Ford is far from the first mayor to miss the annual event, but his decision not to go marks a shift in what has until now been the increasing involvement of Toronto leaders. In the late 1980s, then-mayor Art Eggleton refused to recognize Gay Pride Day and when council overruled him in 1990, the city clerk signed the proclamation.

Former city councillor Kyle Rae, who organized the first Pride Parade in 1981, remembers June Rowlands agreeing to sign the proclamation, but she did not attend the raising of the gay flag or the march.

That all changed in 1995, when then mayor Barbara Hall became the first elected official to join the parade. Mel Lastman continued that tradition somewhat reluctantly. "I'm very leery about being in the parade," he told a reporter before the march, where he was soaked with water guns and greeted with shouts of "We love you Mel."

Mr. Ford has signed the Pride proclamation, but will send another councillor in his place for the flag raising.

Mr. Rae said his decision not to take part in these key events is indicative of a new outlook at city hall. "It offends me given all the work Torontonians have done making this an inclusive city."

Councillor Doug Ford says people that don't know his brother are reading too much into the mayor's actions. "It's no big deal. We are going up north," he said. If the drive home from cottage country isn't too long he said he will try to make it back for the Sunday event and his brother might do the same.

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"We had a tremendous amount of gay people on our campaign that helped us out. When Rob picks up the phone he doesn't ask people are you gay or are you straight, he goes and helps the people. That is just the way he is. He doesn't give two hoots if you are straight, gay, whatever."

Ms. Wong-Tam said if the mayor is busy on the weekend, there will be plenty of other chances during the 10-day Pride festival for him to show his support. "Unless the mayor is incredibly busy for those 10 solid days and can't spare a single minute for the LGBT community," she said. "We are all going to draw our own conclusions."

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