John Ivison: LGBTory activists say now is the time to change party’s policies on same-sex marriage

John Ivison | January 25, 2016 | Last Updated: Jan 26 9:56 AM ET
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Cheryl Taylor and Jennifer Smith hold hands as they arrive for the Grand Pride Wedding, a mass gay wedding at Casa Loma in Toronto, Canada, on June 26, 2014.  GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Cheryl Taylor and Jennifer Smith hold hands as they arrive for the Grand Pride Wedding, a mass gay wedding at Casa Loma in Toronto, Canada, on June 26, 2014.  GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty ImagesCheryl Taylor and Jennifer Smith hold hands as they arrive for the Grand Pride Wedding, a mass gay wedding at Casa Loma in Toronto, Canada, on June 26, 2014.

Back in 2005, the colourful New Brunswick Conservative Elsie Wayne spoke out on same-sex marriage.

“There is not any need for this nonsense whatsoever and we should not have to tolerate it in Canada,” she railed. “Why do gays have to be out there in public, always debating that they want to call it marriage? Why are they dressed up as women on floats?”

Her party leader, Stephen Harper, was less belligerent but equally adamant, arguing in the House of Commons that marriage between a man and a woman was a “foundational institution – a cornerstone of society.”

This view corresponded with the view of the majority of Canadians, who believed either gay marriage should not be lawful or it should not have the same weight as traditional marriage.

There were fears minority groups would follow the lead of same-sex marriage advocates and take their cases to the courts, shaping the nation’s identity in their own image.

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There were concerns that religious officials would be forced to perform marriages contrary to their beliefs; or that the ban on brothers and sisters marrying might be challenged. The sense in some quarters was that the very fabric of our society was being pulled apart.

More than a decade after the passage of the Civil Marriages Act made Canada the third country in the world to legalize same sex marriage, many of those fears have been proved to be overblown. Consequently, public opinion research from last year suggests nearly three in four Canadians now support legalized same-sex marriage

As the modern Conservative Party licks its wounds, after its election defeat last October, there are moves afoot to overturn the clauses in the party’s policy declaration that support the introduction of legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

A group called LGBTories has written to interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose asking for her support to kill the clauses members believe are a “significant obstacle” to acceptance of the Conservative message by voters who might otherwise be attracted to the party’s stance on economics and security.

Eric Lorenzen, a member of the LGBTories’ executive committee, said the issue for many Canadians is settled and the prospect that a future Conservative government might resurrect it is “counter-productive.”

The group hopes to have two clauses struck from the policy declaration at the Tories’ national convention in May.

“The party is in flux right now and it feels like there is a unique window of opportunity to influence the debate,” said Lorenzen, 56, a life-long Conservative Party member.

“I do think the party is more open to change after the election defeat. We were completely shut out of the Island of Montreal, Vancouver and most of the (Greater Toronto Area). We won’t win in the future unless the platform appeals to urban voters and this type of thing just doesn’t sell with urban voters who might be our allies, except for social conservative issues.”

He adds the office of the new Ontario PC leader, Patrick Brown, is “receptive” to the idea, while the Alberta wing of the federal Conservative Party voted to remove the clauses on same-sex marriage from the policy declaration in a vote last weekend.

Monday Ambrose said she welcomed the fact party members would get to vote on the issue.

“I’ve been clear for a long time that the Conservative Party welcomes all conservatives, regardless of sexual orientation. If you believe in smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets and individual freedom, we want you in our party,” she said.

“If it’s something that makes it to our policy convention floor, I’ll be happy to vote the same way.”

In 2006, she voted to restore the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a women when the issue came to a free vote in 2006 and was defeated in the House of Commons.

Since then, gay conservatives have become more visible, hosting the Fabulous Blue Tent party at a recent convention, while the party was vocal in support of gay rights internationally while in office.

The party is in flux right now and it feels like there is a unique window of opportunity to influence the debate

Some of the potential leadership candidates have made it clear they believe the Conservative party need to broaden its appeal if it is to renew itself and be a credible challenger for power in four years.

Michael Chong said he supports the initiative to change to the status quo.

“This debate was settled long ago. More importantly, as a Conservative, I believe in individual liberty and choice. The state should not overly intrude into the private lives of its citizens,” he said.

“I also believe family is the foundation of our society and families come in many different shapes and sizes. If two people are committed to each other, we should recognize it and welcome it.”

My sense is that opinion in the Conservative Party has evolved with that of the public, as the worst fears of gay marriage opponents failed to materialize.

The 2011 census suggests that of 64,575 same-sex couples in Canada, just 21,015 are married, with 9,600 children being raised by same-sex couples.

Passage of the Civil Marriages Act was not a sign of the coming apocalypse – rather it was the law catching up with real life.

There are risks in raising the issue. If the delegates in Vancouver vote to keep the clauses in question, it will confirm the prejudices about the party being the home of white, middle-aged bigots, beholden to no law but that of the Almighty.

But if the same-sex position is overturned, it will send the message that a new more tolerant and inclusive brand of conservatism is serious about challenging for power at the next election.