CANADA

A Prairie titan's fall

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 29 1999
CANADA

A Prairie titan's fall

ROBERT SHEPPARD March 29 1999

Not with standing

Alberta sends mixed signals to homosexuals

CANADA

When it comes to preaching fiscal conservatism, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein can pound a pulpit with the best of them. But on social policy—especially when it touches on religious and moral sensibilities—Klein’s crusading spirit tends to wane. So it was with some obvious reluctance that the premier last week convened a four-hour private meeting of his 64-member Conservative caucus to discuss expanding equality rights for homosexuals. The issue had been festering since last April, when the Supreme Court of Canada decreed that gays and lesbians would be granted protection under the province’s human rights act. Klein, in turn, had to fend off a vigorous campaign among social conservatives in his caucus who wanted to invoke the federal Charter of Rights notwithstanding clause to nullify the ruling. “This thing is coming at us,” Klein had told reporters before last week’s meeting. “It’s like that train. You can’t stop it, you have to deal with it.”

But by the time Tory MLAs emerged from their conclave, it was clear that the train had barely left the station. Apart from a headline-grabbing vow that Alberta would immediately invoke the notwithstanding clause to block any move to sanction gay marriages—something neither the courts nor the federal government have yet contemplated—the Klein government deferred

or delegated many of the thorniest questions regarding gay rights. On same-sex benefits, the caucus said it would “develop a policy framework.” It will “consider” allowing gay couples to register their relationships and, over time, assume the same benefits and obligations as heterosexual spouses. As for allowing gays to adopt or become foster parents, the Tories said that choice should be left to caseworkers and “made on what is in the best interests of the child.”

Most pundits saw the moves as a typical Klein compromise engineered to appease the social and religious conservatives who make up about onethird of his caucus—and who include influential treasurer and deputy premier Stockwell Day. At the same time, the government may have inched forward enough on gay rights to ward off future court challenges. In the short run, the gambit worked, as reaction was muted on both sides. Traditionalists focused on the hard stance against gay marriages, gay rights groups were relieved that—with the exception of gay unions—the government promised a referendum before putting the notwithstanding clause to further use.

All the same, Alberta is moving more cautiously than many other jurisdictions on expanding gay rights. British Columbia has passed legislation allowing same-sex parents to adopt children; Quebec has decreed that gay and lesbian common law couples must be treated the same as heterosexual ones. And last week, Ottawa signalled that it will soon extend federal civil servant pension-survivor benefits to same-sex spouses.

That has led some critics to ask whether the Klein government’s reluctance to embrace gay rights is reinforcing redneck stereotypes about Albertans that persist elsewhere in the country. But political scientist Roger Gibbins, who is president of the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation, rejects that notion. “What gives the issue legs here,” he says, “is not that Albertans are more homophobic, but that it gets linked to larger ongoing political issues about the courts and national institutions setting standards for the province.” Gibbins suspects that Albertans’ attitudes towards gay rights are not so different from their fellow Canadians’. A provincial government poll of 1,000 Albertans last fall found majority support for extending equal financial benefits to samesex couples—as well as for allowing gays and lesbians to adopt or foster-parent children under certain circumstances. But gay marriages are opposed by a margin of 56 to 39 per cent among decided respondents.

Those figures aside, there is a distinctive political dynamic driving the debate in Alberta. Gibbins notes that “Klein is personally very much an urban, secular liberal” on matters such as gay rights and abortion. But in contrast to his firm fiscal agenda, the Tories have not developed a cohesive position on moral issues.

Even many gay rights activists draw a distinction between the Alberta government and the views of ordinary Albertans. “It is not necessarily true that Alberta is the last redneck bastion,” says Ryan Bennett, a 26-year-old town planner who is a volunteer worker with Calgary’s Gay-Lesbian Community Services Association. “No one in Alberta votes in terms of gay rights; they vote on economics, not social issues.” Phil Ivers, a 29-year-old, openly gay Calgary engineer, blames the prolonged debate on the disproportionate clout that social conservatives wield in caucus and cabinet. Ivers suggests that a very small minority of Albertans vehemently oppose gay rights. “And yet that faction is so vocal and well connected,” he laments. “It has the ear of government.” Last week’s closed-door deliberations suggest that remains the case.

BRIAN BERGMAN

John Howse