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‘Footsy with Freaks’: How Kenney Makes Room for Bigots in His Party

In Alberta, many fear a UCP win on April 16 will threaten their rights and safety.

Geoff Dembicki 8 Apr

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

Sarah Elder-Chamanara just can’t bring herself to vote for a party whose candidates make homophobic remarks and want to restrict abortions — no matter how much she agrees with its other positions.

The 35-year-old Calgary resident is a “fiscal conservative” who favours low taxes and less regulation in the economy. She is no New Democrat. In fact, she grew up in B.C. and for years worked in politics as an aide to BC Liberals like Naomi Yamamoto, Ida Chong and Moira Stilwell.

Elder-Chamanara thinks the United Conservative Party candidate in her riding would make a good MLA. But she’s worried that with UCP leader Jason Kenney as Alberta premier, progress for LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive rights could be set back decades.

“As much as I like my candidate, a vote for him is a vote for Kenney, and I can’t do that,” she told The Tyee.

Elder-Chamanara was horrified when audio clips surfaced of UCP candidate Mark Smith comparing homosexuality to paedophilia and scorning women who choose to have abortions.

And she was disgusted when star UCP candidate Caylan Ford was revealed to have compared LGBTQ pride parades to “a celebration of vice and transgression,” and lamented “the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands.”

Elder-Chamanara isn’t sure if Kenney truly rejects what candidates like these stand for.

In a video from 2000, Kenney bragged to Canadian Alliance supporters that during his student activist days in San Francisco he helped overturn a law allowing benefits to same-sex couples — this, at the height of the AIDS crisis.

“Sure, there are things that I’ve done and said in my life that I regret,” Kenney later said. His campaign turned down The Tyee’s request for an interview.

Though Kenney condemned Ford’s comments about white nationalism and accepted her resignation, Ford was replaced with Jeremy Wong, an ordained minister and a pastor who is accused of supporting gay conversion therapy (which Wong denies).

After Smith’s comments questioning whether “homosexual love is good love” became public, Kenney rejected pressure to remove Smith from the party. Nor, when it came to light that Smith had pushed for Christian schools to be able to fire teachers for being gay, did Kenney waver in his support. Smith has been touted to be the UCP’s education minister.

In a Global News Radio interview last week, host Charles Adler asked Kenney, “Why are so many people who bash gays, and bash women, why are so many people who bash Muslims, attracted to the United Conservative Party?”

Kenney responded, “Charles, I reject that.”

So when two UCP volunteers recently showed up at Elder-Chamanara’s door, she said she asked them directly “how they were personally able to reconcile the [hateful] things that have been said with the need in my mind for balanced budgets and fiscal pragmatism?”

The doorknockers replied that “‘we’re not allowed to talk about this, we’re only allowed to talk about economic issues,’” she said.

A UCP spokesperson wrote to The Tyee that “No, there is no truth to this.”

Tensions within Albertan conservatism

The tension that Elder-Chamanara feels between her fiscal beliefs and her social conscience appears to be common these days in Alberta. “I’ve heard that anecdote over and over,” Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, told The Tyee.

It’s not clear whether UCP candidates’ extreme positions on social issues are hurting the party, which has made repealing Alberta’s carbon tax and boosting the province’s oil sands economy central to its messaging.

A poll released April 5 showed Kenney’s UCP leading Rachel Notley’s NDP by nine points and by slightly more in crucial Calgary. That gap halves the one found by a different poll released just two days earlier.

Still, Bratt reflects the consensus that the UCP will form a majority government. Albertans, and all Canadians, he said, should be prepared “for a much more socially conservative party than we have seen in the mainstream of Alberta for a very long time.”

He added, “There is concern in the gay community and the women’s rights community that a lot of the protections that have been built up over the years... are going to be rolled back by Jason Kenney.”

‘I’m very scared’

Dylan Chevalier thinks that he and other LGBTQ people he knows in Alberta are being used as pawns in Kenney’s election strategy. The 20-year-old executive director of the group Sexual and Gender Acceptance Edmonton last month joined hundreds of people for a demonstration outside the Alberta legislature.

They were protesting a UCP policy that Chevalier believes could put young people in danger. “I’m very scared for myself and what will happen to the LGBTQ community if this party forms government,” he told The Tyee.

582px version of DylanChevalier.jpg
Dylan Chevalier believes UCP leader Kenney appeased the anti-LGBTQ wing of his party by reversing his position on gay-straight alliances in school. If UCP wins, schools will out queer students to their parents, which will put youth at serious risk, he says.

The UCP platform calls for the rules around gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools to be amended. Normally, students are free to set up and join these alliances, which exist for people to socialize and be open in their sexuality, without anyone at home knowing. Kenney wants to make it so that teachers have the option of informing people’s parents.

“I think it would be very rare,” Kenney said.

To Chevalier, who ran a GSA when he attended Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton, this undermines the entire thing. “The whole purpose of a gay-straight alliance is so you can be safe — you’re not going to be outed to anyone, you don’t have to worry,” he said. “The student could be in an unsafe environment at home if they came out.”

He suspects that the only reason Kenney is making this an election issue at all is because of pressure from within the UCP. At a party convention in 2018, delegates voted in favour of informing parents about gay-straight alliance membership. Kenney opposed it.

“Let me be absolutely stone-cold clear: a United Conservative government will not be changing law or policy to require notification of parents when kids join GSAs,” he promised at the time.

Chevalier argued Kenney reversed that position on GSAs in order “to appease hardcore social conservatives” and now LGBTQ youth in Alberta have to bear the consequences.

Those consequences, tweeted one gay Albertan, could be life and death.

Kenney has attempted to present a moderate face by supporting Pride events last year in Edmonton and Calgary. A conservative organization known as LGBTory last year called Kenney “an ally,” claiming “there are few politicians in this country who have done as much as he has for the Canadian and global LGBTQ+ community.”

But Chevalier isn’t buying it. “He’s very clearly still homophobic,” Chevalier said. “We have a party that stands by absolutely disgusting candidates.” If the UCP wins the election, Chevalier argues, Kenney will no longer face the same electoral pressures to condemn hateful remarks and actions within the party. “They will have four years to do whatever they want,” he said.

Investigating Kenney’s past

Taylor Lambert isn’t convinced when Kenney says his views on abortion and same-sex marriage have softened since his student days as a hard-line religious activist in San Francisco. Lambert, a freelance journalist based in Calgary, told The Tyee his scepticism is rooted in basic journalistic principles. “It’s not specific to Jason Kenney — it’s true of any leader,” he said. “You have to look at their background, where they came from, and their past words and deeds.”

In this 1990 clip, Jason Kenney, then a student politician at the Catholic University of San Francisco, tells CNN that women on campus advocating pro-choice were ‘destroying the mission and the purpose of the university.’ The priests in charge ruled against his view and in favour of free speech.

In January, Lambert flew to San Francisco for an independent Calgary media outlet called the Sprawl to learn more about Kenney’s history — and what Lambert found adds important context to the story the UCP leader has been telling Albertans.

Kenney has said several times that in addition to his early religious activism he spent time helping people with HIV/AIDS, once explaining in a video that “this is a disease I first saw first-hand volunteering at a hospice in San Francisco back in the 1980s.” Kenney was referring to the Gift of Love Hospice, where Catholic missionaries provided assistance to homeless men. “I was transformed,” he has said.

Lambert learned that the Gift of Love Hospice, which no longer exists, was not well known in San Francisco’s LGBTQ community. A Los Angeles Times story from 1990 suggested that the sisters who worked there expressed “discomfort or disapproval” towards gay people. “The overall impression is of a miserable place oriented less towards the comfort and care of the dying than to a religious notion of suffering for salvation,” Lambert wrote.

In a “fact-check” issued by the UCP in response to the Sprawl’s reporting, Kenney doesn’t directly address Lambert’s characterization of the hospice. Kenney argues that looking at his past makes him “realize how much my views have changed over the decades, which I think is normal for most people as they mature.”

Lambert said it’s unclear how many people across the province accept the UCP leader’s assurances. “Do you as a voter, and do we as Albertans, believe that Jason Kenney has renounced those views, or is this a transformation of political convenience?” he said.  

‘What the hell is that? That’s not conservative’

The balancing act Kenney conducts in holding together his coalition of oil patch boosters with tolerant social views, and fervent foes of abortion and LGBTQ rights, is made clear by speaking with Jack Fonseca. If Kenney has genuinely moderated his positions on social issues, that makes Fonseca angry.

Fonseca is director of political operations for Campaign Life Coalition, a national anti-abortion and social conservative advocacy group which several years ago gave Kenney a “pro-life” rating, explaining “Jason had a 100 per cent, perfect voting record on life & family issues throughout his long career in the House of Commons.”

But since then the group’s opinion of Kenney has soured. “We’ve been terribly let down,” Fonseca told The Tyee.

Campaign Life Coalition was not pleased when Kenney initially questioned the UCP resolution informing parents about teens joining gay-straight alliances. And the group didn’t it like when Kenney participated in a UCP Pride breakfast last summer. “What the hell is that?” Fonseca said. “That’s not conservative.”

Campaign Life Coalition still thinks Kenney is useful to the social conservative movement. It argued that Kenney’s announcement about parental notifications for GSAs is “a step in the right direction, but does not take the UCP nearly far enough down the road to total freedom from the gay lobby’s chokehold on Alberta families.”

Fonseca thinks the UCP should entirely repeal legislation supporting gay-straight alliances in schools. He said Campaign Life Coalition and its allies plan to keep pushing Kenney to take action on this and other issues important to his social conservative base. “This is a very important election,” Fonseca said. “Parents and families and voters in general of Alberta need to put pressure on him.”

They will be joined by the Wilberforce Project, an anti-abortion group based in Edmonton. “As it stands, if the UCP wins the upcoming election, then we will have the most pro-life legislature in decades, and maybe ever,” the group wrote on its website in February. “We now need to keep the candidates who won their nominations accountable and on track to enacting pro-life policy.”

A UCP spokesperson wrote to The Tyee that “Jason Kenney has been clear that he won’t be re-opening these contentious debates.”

‘Footsy with freaks’

And yet Kenney’s campaigning remains familiar to people who have long watched his career. He may speak publicly against bigotry and intolerance, but he does far less than he could to purge his party of such elements.

Extreme social conservatives wondering if they are welcome in the UCP, therefore, need merely note who remains in their midst as party members and candidates. They can take comfort, as well, in Kenney’s past record in Alberta.

That record makes it impossible to accept that Kenney is some recent arrival surprised to find extremist elements clinging to him. Instead, Kenney cut his political teeth in Alberta. It’s where he learned how to win by explicitly courting the most deeply social conservative voters.

In 2000, a new right-wing populist federal party, the Canadian Alliance, had evolved from the Reform Party founded and headed by Preston Manning. Now a contest to lead the party was underway, pitting Manning against the Pentecostal Stockwell Day, who as an Alberta government minister had advocated denying LGBTQ people protections under the province’s human rights code.

Kenney abandoned campaigning for his mentor Manning to drum up votes for Day. Why?

As a 2014 Walrus profile recounts, Day “had earned the allegiance of fellow social conservatives by attempting to end provincial funding for abortion... Like all leadership contests, the Alliance race came down to which candidate could sign up the most new members. Manning discovered that Kenney was trolling for Day supporters at evangelical and Catholic churches, and on the website of the anti-abortion lobby Campaign Life Coalition, a practice Manning adamantly opposed.”

Day won, and became Canada’s opposition leader. He named Kenney his finance critic.

In November 2016, as Kenney made his move to unite the right in Alberta by folding the Progressive Conservative party into the more hard-right Wild Rose party, he bussed in hundreds of male students from Christian colleges to a PC policy forum in Red Deer.

According to Alberta Views magazine:

“Immediately after the policy forum, Calgary MLA and PC leadership candidate Sandra Jansen resigned from the race, citing aggressive and sexually charged verbal and written harassment during the Red Deer convention — abuse that often focused on her support for women’s reproductive rights. ‘My presence in this race has so enraged a socially regressive element,’ she said in an email to supporters, ‘that I fear it will take away from our ability to fight what is turning out to be a very hostile takeover attempt on the party.’” The only other female among the six PC candidates resigned, too.

Four months later, Kenney was elected leader of the PC party and given a mandate to forge unity with Wild Rose, which produced the Kenney-led UCP.

Last October, Kenney was forced to expel a UCP member for his white supremacist views. Kenney said he’d had no idea, though the man had run the call centre for his leadership campaign. Kenney’s former conservative opponent for the UCP leadership implored in a tweet that Kenney “stop playing footsy with freaks.”

A few days ago, I checked back with Elder-Chamanara. Since we’d last spoken, the number of Kenney’s UCP party candidates espousing bigoted or hateful views had grown and continued to mount. Elder-Chamanara sent me links to three fresh “eruptions,” including one involving UCP candidate Travis Toews.

Toews, as it turns out, is also the director of an Alberta private Christian college whose handbook explains that “all sexual activity is designed by God to be used in the context of marriage between a man and woman.” The school therefore had banned not only all other types of sexual activity, but “spell casting, sorcery or demonic association.” Also yoga.

The news about Toews was just breaking. For Elder-Chamanara, was it hard to keep track of it all?

“Sadly, yes,” she said. “That alone says something about what’s happening here.”  [Tyee]

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