On September 1 voters in the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Rouge River went to the polls in a provincial by-election called to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon. In a significant win for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (OPCP), candidate Raymond Cho took the riding from the Liberals by a vote margin of 10%. The final days of the campaign were dominated by a controversy involving OPCP Leader Patrick Brown’s statements on the province’s sex education curriculum, with social conservatives attacking Brown for his apparent flip-flop on the issue. The election result is a significant vindication for Brown and an indication of the waning influence of social conservatives in the OPCP.
About a week before the election, a letter composed over Brown’s signature was circulated to voters in the riding which promised to “scrap” the province’s controversial sex education curriculum and replace it after extensive consultation with parents. Social conservative activists were vehemently opposed to the new sex ed guidelines; they backed independent candidate Queenie Yu who was running on the single issue of withdrawing the curriculum. When Brown’s letter apparently acknowledged the legitimacy of their position, they saw this as a victory. Meanwhile, critics on the left and moderates in the OPCP viewed the letter as a cynical attempt to court the immigrant communities that dominate the riding.
Brown initially defended the letter, but a few days later reversed course. In an op-ed in the Toronto Star he wrote:
It was a mistake for a letter to go out to Scarborough-Rouge River voters saying that I would “scrap” the updated curriculum. This is not my view. This is not what I will do. In fact, the opposite is true. I apologize.
I strongly support an updated curriculum that takes into account changing attitudes and the world in which children now dwell. They are being asked to understand challenging topics in ways their parents were not. It is important to have sex education to combat homophobia, and raise important issues like consent, mental health, bullying, and gender identity. The world has changed and so should the curriculum.
Brown went further and affirmed his support for Ontario’s LGBT community:
I also want to be very clear about something else. Consultation doesn’t mean opening the door to intolerance. I will never support removing LGBT sensitivity or combating homophobia from schools. I will always support consulting with parents and giving them a voice, but I will never support intolerance in our society.
I am determined to lead an Ontario PC Party that is modern, inclusive, pragmatic, and that reflects the diversity and values of our province. I was proud to be the first PC leader to march in the Toronto Pride parade. I was proud to be the first MP in Barrie's history to attend a pride flag raising. I fully support marriage equality. It doesn't matter who you love, the government has no business in your personal life.
When Brown’s apology was published, social conservative activists were furious. Charles McVety, president of the Institute for Canadian Values and Canada Christian College, called for Brown’s resignation:
It is always sad to see a politician be deceitful, but it is especially troubling when he is so brazen that he will flip three times on the same issue. We have been used, deceived and betrayed. For the sake of our children, Patrick Brown must step down and allow a principled, trustworthy person to lead the party.
Jack Fonseca of the Campaign Life Coalition weighed in:
All [the OPCP caucus] have left now is a party leader who voters, in general, now know is a two-faced politician that cannot be trusted. PC members should start talking about a leadership review to replace the no-credibility Patrick Brown with someone who will respect parental rights and proudly take on this winning issue of repealing the Liberal sex-ed curriculum.
REAL Women of Canada was also upset:
The one thing we have learned definitively about Patrick Brown, Leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (PC), is that he is totally untrustworthy. He cannot be trusted in any way.
Social conservative groups worked hard for Queenie Yu’s campaign, redoubling their efforts after Brown’s gaffe. In the end, the whole sex ed fiasco had little effect on the OPCP; Cho took the seat from the Liberals by a wide margin of 39% to 29%. Yu received 2.3% of the vote, or 582 votes. By comparison, candidate Above Znoneofthe of the None of the Above Party received 135 votes, almost a quarter of Yu’s support.
The Scarborough-Rouge River by-election had some important outcomes. For one, Patrick Brown has once and for all clarified his position on social issues. In an interview the day after the election, he promised a “laser beam focus” on the economy. “I’m interested in the fiscal issues. I’m interested in economic issues. I’m not interested in revisiting social issues.” His unequivocal statement of support for LGBT rights, including marriage equality, is clear, and he will be held to that promise.
More importantly, the election has exposed the specious claim of social conservatives to be the “base” of the conservative movement in Canada. In a riding where a hot-button socon issue became a major factor just days before the election, and where socon activist groups threw all their support behind a candidate who was campaigning solely on that very issue, social conservatives could only muster 2.3% of the vote. Socons are already rationalizing the result of the election (see, for example, here) but it is clear that social issues had little traction in this by-election.
Similarly, the claim by socons that conservative parties must adopt socially conservative policies to attract new voters among recent immigrants has been proven to be without foundation. When we worked at the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) policy convention in Vancouver in May to re-write the party’s marriage policy, our opponents from the Campaign Life Coalition repeatedly proclaimed that adopting socially liberal policies would “kill the CPC’s ability to grow by taking away our ability to attract new Canadians.” They claimed that if, on these issues, “no difference exists between the parties, they’ll keep on voting Liberal.” Well, in Scarborough-Rouge River that threat proved to be empty. In a riding where 84% of the residents are from immigrant families and where there was no difference between the OPCP and the Liberals on this supposedly crucial social issue, the voters handed the OPCP a convincing and historic victory over the incumbent Liberals.
Canada is a diverse, tolerant and secular society. Canadians generally believe that, as Patrick Brown stated in his apology, “the government has no business in your personal life”. They support policies that encourage acceptance and equality, and they are uncomfortable with religious ideologues dictating public policy. The potential growth for Conservative parties is not among religious fundamentalists, but with fiscally-conservative voters who believe in personal freedom. Policies that appeal to this group are essential if Conservatives expect to break through in urban centres where they have been shut out in recent elections. The Scarborough-Rouge River result has shown the way forward for the OPCP, and we are happy that Patrick Brown has chosen this path.
Hastings County, Ontario