Storming the ramparts

Roseanne Skoke leads a fierce crusade against gay rights

E. KAYE FULTON November 28 1994

Storming the ramparts

Roseanne Skoke leads a fierce crusade against gay rights

E. KAYE FULTON November 28 1994

Storming the ramparts

Roseanne Skoke leads a fierce crusade against gay rights


Twelve years before she came to Ottawa, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roseanne Skoke was a convicted criminal who took on the Roman Catholic Church—and won. She was 28 years old, a lawyer in the tiny mining town of Stellarton, N.S., and the ringleader of a gang of six family members embroiled in what Maritimers irreverently called The Kneelers’ Case.

Their crime: Skoke and her family broke a local liturgical order and knelt in traditional fashion, rather than stood, to receive Holy Communion at Sunday mass. Their punishment: a six-month suspended sentence for disrupting “the solemnity of a religious meeting.” Resolute in the midst of a five-year religious war that tore the town apart, Skoke argued her own case right up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which overturned the ruling against the six in 1985. As retired bishop William Power, the Antigonish diocese official who had issued the order, ruefully acknowledged last week:

“Roseanne Skoke has views and she sticks to them.” That tenacity was evident on Parliament Hill last week as the rookie Central Nova MP once again took on the established powers: this time, her

own Liberal government. To the chagrin of many of her party colleagues, Skoke is at the centre of a small cadre of Liberal backbenchers opposed to Bill C-41, a government bill amending the Criminal Code to allow Canadian courts to impose stiffer sentences for crimes motivated by hatred based on, among other factors, sexual orientation. Arguing against party policy, Skoke contends that the specific addition of homosexuals to an existing list of racial and religious minorities who are entitled to protection from hatred opens the door to special rights for Canadian gays and lesbians engaged in relationships that Skoke says are “unnatural and immoral.” The backbencher has also unexpectedly put her own party on the defensive. “Some of my colleagues, per-

haps naively, think she will go away,” says Skoke’s fellow Nova Scotia Liberal MP Mary Clancy. “She’s not going away.”

In fact, Skoke is prepared once more to steer her personal convictions into a political crusade at whatever the cost. Although not alone in her objections—Liberal insiders es-

'I feel very secure that I am not an intolerant person or a bigot'

tímate that at least 15 of her party colleagues, as well as the majority of Reformers, agree in varying degrees with her stand— the 40-year-old devout Catholic has become an impassioned figure in the protest against legal recognition of gay rights. Newspaper headlines brand her “the gay-bashing MP.” The NDP’s Svend Robinson, the first openly gay MP in federal politics, flatly refuses to accept her challenge to a public debate after an encounter on CBC television last May during which Skoke declared that homosexuality is “an inhuman act [that] defiles humanity, destroys family and is annihilating mankind.” Said Robinson: “Let’s call it what it is. It’s the tyranny of the religious right, and she’s their new idol. I have no intention of giving her a platform.” Skoke’s bottom line is indeed blunt. “Canadians,” she told Maclean’s, “should not and must not condone or accept homosexuality.” Certainly the MP’s fierce opposition has tainted what was expected to be an easy passage of a cornerstone of the majority Liberal government’s agenda of legal reform. Among its provisions, the bill increases penalties for breach of probation and permits

families of murder victims to participate in parole hearings. The so-called hate clause—Section 718.2 (a) (i)—expands sentencing powers to “crimes based on race, nationality, color, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation of the victim.”

The Liberals had expected that the Reform party would be a source of dissent. And they had even assumed, rightly as it turned out, that right-wing Scarborough Liberal MP Tom Wappel would raise a vocal, but brief, charge against the section involving homosexual rights.

But they were caught off guard by the four-foot, seven-inch Skoke who, for most of the Liberals’ first year in office, was a dutiful supporter of government policy. At a parliamentary committee hearing last“ Thursday, Justice Minister | Allan Rock spent at least ^ half of his two-hour appear§ anee defending the need | for two words—“sexual ori9 entation”—to appear in the 75-page document of proposed sweeping reforms to sentencing laws. Although the committee ran out of time before Skoke, an asso-

ciate committee member, could ask a question, the Nova Scotia lawyer was the target of a sharply aimed barb from the minister. ‘To say that including sexual orientation in C-41 is encouraging a lifestyle,” said Rock, staring at Skoke, “is like saying that, because we’re including religion, we’re encouraging people to become Catholics.”

Anyone who doubts Skoke’s convictions on this issue need only look back on the campaign leading up to the October, 1993, federal election that brought her to Ottawa. Until Skoke won it by just over 4,000 votes, Central Nova had been a Conservative fiefdom since its creation in 1967. Indeed, it was so safely blue that former prime minister Brian Mulroney used the riding as a parachute into the House of Commons in 1983. Three

years before the 1993 election, Skoke attended a weekend Liberal workshop in Halifax to encourage women in Nova Scotia to run for office, and she took on the challenge. Right up until voting day almost no one expected the riding to turn Liberal. But Skoke’s campaign, based on a platform of restoring family values, hit a chord in the economically beleaguered region. She also impressed Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during a pre-election sweep through the Maritimes last summer. In a reversal of stock campaign speeches,

It’s the tyranny of the religious right, and she’s their new idol’ Skoke turned to Chrétien onstage and said: “Everyone here knows you. But let me introduce you to the people of my riding.” Chrétien grinned with delight as Skoke then ran through an assortment of her constituents’ occupations, from miners to forestry workers, from fishermen to plant workers. “Did you hear that?” Chrétien asked his campaign staff as he boarded the bus after the event. On all my campaigns, no one has ever done that.” Chrétien also praised Skoke for her forceful stand on family values. “Canada exists to serve families,” she told Liberals who came to meet the leader. “Families have inherent and inviolable rights.”

Unknown to most in the federal party, those words had a deeply personal meaning to Skoke. In the midst of the campaign, the

eldest of her two daughters, Betty, a 15-yearold high-school student, was pregnant and unmarried. Skoke herself was a single mother; as she describes it, her husband, Paul Graham, a Stellarton lawyer, left her in 1984 for another woman. (She continues to wear her diamond ring because, she says, she be lieves in her marriage vow “until death do us part.”) Her granddaughter, named Angeline, was born last December. A month before the Liberal government began its first session of Parliament last January, Skoke hired a housekeeper to look after Betty, now in Grade 12, as well as her youngest daughter, Lina, 14, and her grandchild. “The father of the baby, a young fellow, didn’t accept any responsibility,” Skoke says. “There is no contact with him at all. It’s a little heartbreak in itself.”

Perhaps the heartbreak would have little relevance to Skoke’s political career under other circumstances. But a central point to Skoke’s objection to homosexual rights rests upon her interpretation of the sanctity of family and the laws that govern it. In particular, Skoke’s beliefs are rooted in her strict Catholic upbringing. While she argues that she is not against homosexuals, just the practice of homosexuality, critics accuse her of using the law as a lofty screen for a hypocritical, if not sanctimonious, version of the world-according-to-Skoke. “In the preamble to the Constitution, we have the rule of law and the supremacy of God,” she explains. “When we enact laws, we must make sure that they do not contravene natural law, which is God’s law. Homosexuality is unnatural. Allowing special legal status to homosexuals would allow them to move in to redefine family. When there are competing

interests between homosexuals and families, the rights of families must prevail. I feel very secure that I am not an intolerant person or a bigot. It’s the law.” Many Liberals were compelled to publicly differ with

Skoke’s unorthodox opinions. After the initial airing of her objections during a Sept. 20 House of Commons debate on Bill C-41, government House Leader Herb Gray hinted that Skoke might face disciplinary action for flying in the face of a human-rights amendment that the Liberals had promised for more than 15 years. The next morning, during the party’s routine Wednesday caucus meeting, Skoke was dryly reminded by several Liberal MPs that she, like other party candidates during the election, had supported the Liberal Red Book of campaign promises, which included proposed amendments to Canadian law that would outlaw crimes motivated by hatred based on sexual orientation, among other reasons. Says Clancy: “Roseanne and her colleagues should know that being a Liberal means buying into the whole party, not just part of it.”

But key Liberals knew in advance of Skoke’s unhappiness with the bill. Skoke said she personally alerted Rock to her opinions before the Sept. 20 debate and assured him that she would stress positive aspects that she could support before attacking the provision she could not. She later privately met with Chrétien to explain her position. “I told him what I was doing and why I was doing it,” Skoke told Maclean’s.

“He said that every member of Parliament had a right to state their opinion.” Added Skoke: “What people have to realize is that we are in very different political times. The

Liberal party is actually the only national party. Therefore, we’re not only government but we’re almost our own national opposition.” Skoke’s logic has provoked mixed reviews —and some bewilderment—among her own constituents. Shortly before Bill C-41 was introduced for second reading in September, Skoke polled members of her riding executive to determine their support for “special rights” for gays and lesbians. The answer she received was, not surprisingly, a resounding No. Only after the debate in the Commons did the executive realize that the issue was not that simple. Since then, at least one member of the executive has sent a letter to local newspapers reversing her opin-

ion. And a local gay rights group in Skoke’s riding responded by arranging to have Svend Robinson speak there on Nov. 28. Still, others in the conservative community remain supportive of their controversial MP. Said Stellarton Mayor Clarence Porter: “Roseanne has a lot of people behind her in this fight.”

Ironically, Skoke has been in the middle of the two strongest issues to split the community. In her 1980s fight against the local

Skoke says gays and lesbians are engaged in an ‘unnatural and immorar lifestyle

Catholic parish, Skoke argued that lay courts have no business meddling in church affairs. Instead, she said the matter should be dealt with in ecclesiastical courts, “with canon lawyers to interpret, apply and enforce the code of canon law.” Beneath the precise legalese, however, was a deeper, more emotional layer of the dispute: the Skokes believed that the clergy denied them communion largely because they suspected that the family had links to a U.S.based religious sect called The Bayside Movement, which advocates a return to traditional Catholic practices, based on a series of alleged apparitions and messages. The fundamentalist group claims that the

Virgin Mary appeared at a shrine in Bayside, N.Y.—a claim that the Vatican refuses to recognize. The Skokes denied affiliation with the group at the time, although they agreed that the apparitions existed— and that they included a message from the Virgin Mary to kneel for commu-

nion. “I attended the shrine as a pilgrim,” Skoke told Maclean’s last week. “I never doubted my right to believe in what I do.” The Skoke family paid a price for their beliefs. Until the church dispute, Alexan-

der and Grace Skoke and their brood of eight children, including Roseanne, were considered among the leading families of the tightly knit community. The Skokes ran the local general store; their children began operating an assortment of businesses that has grown to include two hairstyling salons and real estate and insurance companies. Roseanne, the second eldest, graduated from Dalhousie Law School at age 21, then returned to Stellarton to open a general practice specializing in family and civil law. As their dispute with the parish dragged through the Nova Scotia courts, the Skokes found themselves increas-

ingly isolated in their community. Their businesses were boycotted; on one occasion rocks were hurled through the window of the general store. At the lowest point in 1985, claiming that the family had been irreparably harmed “psychologically, emotionally, social-

ly, economically and spiritually,” Skoke threatened to fde a multimillion-dollar law suit against the very church that defined her religious beliefs.

Since then, Skoke has reaffirmed her faith in church and community. In 1993, Stellarton’s town council unanimously voted to hire her to represent the town’s interests at the public inquiry into the explosion at the nearby Westray mine that killed 26 miners, including her first cousin, Glen Martin, whose body was never recovered. After the election, she hired two lawyers and three permanent secretaries to take over her thriving law practice. In Ottawa, the Liberal brass do not consider her to be a rising star. To say the least, Skoke’s focused campaign has likely damaged her chances of advancement through the ranks of rookie MPs.

There is no sign that that will deter her— and every sign that she will persist in her crusade. Most Thursdays, Skoke is home with her family in Stellarton by midnight, returning to a sparsely furnished 29th-floor apartment in downtown Ottawa by noon on Tuesdays. On Sundays in Stellarton, Skoke returns to Our Lady of Lourdes, the Roman Catholic Church that was forced to take her back into its fold. She notes with satisfaction that the original dissenting group of six parishioners is now joined by at least 40 more who kneel to take communion. For Roseanne Skoke, that is a measurable sign of success against what once seemed like overwhelming odds. □