The last time the Conservative Party of Canada had a leadership election, in 2004, gay marriage had yet to be settled and the idea of Adam-and-Steve joining in matrimony was still a fairly toxic proposition. Stephen Harper, elected to helm the recently-unified party, later promised to hold a free vote in the House of Commons to redefine marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. It, obviously, failed.
Fast forward to present day, as a race to succeed Harper switches into fifth gear.
Ardent social conservative Brad Trost has come out attacking “gay pride,” which he only refers to in scare quotes, promising supporters in a fundraising email: “I have not marched in any ‘gay pride’ parade. Further, I will NOT march in any ‘gay pride’ parade as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, nor will I march in or FUND any ‘gay pride’ event of any kind as prime minister.”
Trost included photos of some of his competitors marching in various pride events in an effort to shame them.
His campaign followed up with a video wherein his campaign manager begins: “In case you haven’t noticed, Brad is not entirely comfortable with the whole gay thing.”
But while Trost seems intent on dragging the party back to its 2004 days, the party doesn’t seem interested in going with him.
VICE News reached out to many of the frontrunners in the race to ask whether they would be attending Toronto’s Pride Parade this summer — the largest festival of its kind in Canada.
Toronto’s festival is also facing controversy, after Black Lives Matter pushed the parade into barring uniform-wearing police officers from participating in the parade. That has sparked a debate over yanking pride’s funding.
Kevin O’Leary, the brash reality TV star who appears to be leading the pack, will be attending some sort of pride event, according to his campaign spokesperson.
“Kevin supports the LGBTQI community and, schedule permitting, he would march in the pride parade,” his campaign said in an email.
Maxime Bernier, the self-styled libertarian — who has been courting the alt-right vote in recent weeks — told VICE News that “he marched in the gay parade before and would have no problem in marching in it again.”
“[Bernier] marched in the gay parade before and would have no problem in marching in it again.”
Lisa Raitt is on the same side, with her campaign saying she will attend Toronto pride. Deepak Obhrai, the longest-serving MP in the party who is running on a campaign of diversity and inclusivity, released a statement Thursday iterating his support for the queer community. “Pride parades across the country are integral parts of our communities as are other festivals,” he said in the statement.
Kellie Leitch, who has aggressively courted the hard right wing flank in the party, doesn’t appear interested in trying to scoop up Trost’s social conservative fringe.
“She has marched in pride in the past and would be happy to do so again,” her campaign said in an email. “However she will not march in the Toronto pride parade as long as they exclude police participation.”
Michael Chong, who has been campaigning as a moderate, is on the same side — “we will try to schedule a pride parade attendance in a municipality that has not banned the police. Like Ottawa for example,” his campaign said.
Neither Pierre Lemieux nor Andrew Scheer, both known to be social conservatives, responded to requests from VICE News.
But while the mainstream of the party appears intent on shedding their past antagonism to the queer community, some are embracing their new socially progressive mentality more than others.
“[Kellie Leitch] will not march in the Toronto pride parade as long as they exclude police participation.”
Of the Conservative Party leadership contenders, five voted in favour of legislation to enshrine human rights protections for transgender Canadians: Steven Blaney, Deepak Obhrai, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong.
Maxime Bernier also voted for the bill, although he later recanted his support mid-campaign after meeting with University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, whose has publicly attacked the human rights protections, although his criticisms have been repeatedly chided as unfounded and baseless. In a recent interview, Bernier did not seem to understand what the legislation actually does, nor what jurisdiction it covers.
Scheer and Trost both voted against the legislation, while Erin O’Toole and Leitch both missed the vote. Leitch has since decried the bill.
O’Leary is not a Member of Parliament, but he’s talked succinctly about his position on the issue more broadly.
“[My daughter] is my high bar. I have to win her back,” O’Leary said on CTV in February, after admitting that his daughter voted for Justin Trudeau. “Not only her but all of her compatriots. They’ve gotta vote for me. So, reproductive rights? Done. LGBTQI? Done.”
But the vocal social conservatives remain entrenched within the party, and their clout has been largely untested over the last decade.
Trost has been holding town halls across the country, where a small but fervent base of supporters have turned out. At a recent event in Toronto, held at the Canada Christian College, Trost admitted that he wouldn’t seek to go back and try to repeal gay marriage from Canadian law, should he be elected leader.
“[My daughter] is my high bar. I have to win her back. Not only her but all of her compatriots. They’ve gotta vote for me. So, reproductive rights? Done. LGBTQI? Done.”
He did, however, rail against “gender confusion”
And his supporters have largely reflected his so-con credentials. One woman stood to lament that she’s accosted by “the homosexuals” when she tries to leave her house to get a haircut. She proceeded to lament about “the AIDS” and “the drugs” that supposedly plague Toronto’s gay community.
Rather than admonish her question, Trost encouraged her to take up the cause herself — though without really explaining how — admitting that the government can’t fix all social ills. Trost did say that he wanted to allow parents to pull their children from class in virtually any situation, specifically when issues around gender and sexuality arise.
It seems quite likely that Trost will finish near the bottom of the heap. If the mug’s game of opinion polling in the race is to be believed, he is hovering between one and three percent support from Conservative Party members.
But given that the race prioritizes second, third, and even fourth-place choices of members — party members can rank up to ten candidates, with their vote shifting down the line as their preferred candidates get eliminated — the social conservatives may yet play a spoiler role in the race.
Many race watchers have suggested that Scheer, who served as speaker of the House of Commons under Harper, could coalesce support from Trost and Lemieux to overtake the social moderates and come within spitting distance of becoming leader.
The results will be announced on May 26.