This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 11, 2019.
Since the launch of the federal election, which feels like an eternity ago, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has been dogged by variations on the same question:
Will you attend a Pride parade?
Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?
Why did you compare equal marriage to a dog’s tail?
Never mind, some would say, that the questions themselves can seem unfair. Until Global’s David Aiken pressed the other leaders this week with the same question, Justin Trudeau, who professes to be a Catholic, the same as Scheer, and Jagmeet Singh were not asked their views about what’s sinful; adjudicating sin not generally being within a prime minister’s job description.
Yet the questions could not have come to Scheer — or his advisers — as a surprise. Every conservative leader before Scheer has also faced this line of questioning, and every one has been able to rebut it more effectively.
That Scheer has been unable to muster a good enough answer has become a primary criticism from those who would rather see someone different lead the party into the next federal election.
I am personally sympathetic to Scheer. As a gay man of my generation, I have known many friends and colleagues, and especially many conservatives, whose own opinions have evolved and progressed over time.
For many, it has been a prolonged journey, which I have found personally painful to witness. But for most, the destination has been one that has come to transcend acceptance to become one of inclusion.
That’s why it is so difficult to understand how Scheer can profess respect for all Canadians but be unable to categorically state that homosexuality is not a sin.
All that said, it is not too late for him to have his own come-to-Judy moment.
Premier Doug Ford staged a quiet evolution of his own this past summer. After a lifetime spent skipping Pride parades in favour of the family cottage, the premier made a low-key appearance at the York Pride Parade. He was enthusiastically welcomed; marching in parades has come to be in the job description of every politician at every level.
Whether Ford’s decision represents a change of heart or a political calculation in a province where 1-in-15 residents participate in Toronto’s Pride Parade, the gesture meant the same thing: Ford is prepared to be the premier for all Ontarians, regardless of his views about their sexual orientation.
Conversely, that Scheer cannot bring himself to make the same token gesture sends a different message to not only each and every LGTBQ Canadian, but to their family and friends as well: his religious beliefs are so deeply held, they outweigh even his desire, as a career politician, to win the most important race of his life.
To many Canadians, this decision reads not as pious adherence to devout religious belief, but an irrational prejudice so overwhelming he puts it before good optics, good politics, even basic common sense.
Even if by now, Scheer’s pride about Pride prevents him from backing down from his position, there are concrete policies that would have assuaged these concerns. The Conservatives could have vowed to end the blood ban; they could have outflanked the Liberals on the matter of LGBTQ refugees — in 2009, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced special measures to admit gay Iranians as refugees; the list goes on.
Adopting any one of these would have been smart politics. It would have allowed Scheer to say that while Trudeau is about shallow optics, he is about real action.
No doubt the party will continue to litigate the matter internally. If Scheer survives the April leadership review, he will need to find a way to answer those nagging questions.
In doing so, he may find it worthwhile to engage with Eric Duncan, the newly elected 31-year-old MP for Stormont — Dundas — South Glengarry. Duncan is openly gay and has never been to a Pride parade. But in a deeply rural riding, he won more votes than nearly any other Ontario Conservative, very nearly eclipsing veteran MP Peter Kent.
Duncan is living proof: There is a path to victory that runs through honesty, sincerity and genuine inclusion. What’s more, we have decided, as a country, that it is a Canadian path.