Controversial photo ops are a warning sign of shifting conservative political goals

OPINION: There are reasons to worry that go far beyond “Straight Pride” T-shirts

There seemed to be no shortage of attempts to prove the caricature of rednecks attending the Calgary Stampede, as we saw three separate photo incidents showcasing homophobic and transphobic content by conservative politicians. In some of those cases, there was weaselling around the denunciation of the message, but no apologies offered, which says a lot about where the culture war discourse is at in Canada, and why conservative party leaders are unwilling to take a stand against these kinds of messages.

Both federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta premier Danielle Smith, each posed for photos with a guy in a bright green shirt that read “Straight Pride,” headlined with the biologically untrue notion to “Thank a straight person today for your existence.” While I have made the joke that this must have been confusing to both Poilievre and Smith, because we all know that the colours of the Straight Pride flag are six different shades of beige, each politician nevertheless claimed that they hadn’t read the T-shirt before posing for the photos, and stated somewhat tersely that they don’t support the message.

This beggars belief, however, not only because in spite of the claim that there was a photo line, each would have had staff there to ensure that there wasn’t anything that would embarrass either leader in the photo, because that’s media handler 101 stuff (though Poilievre also had no problem posing with guys in “Fuck Trudeau” shirts); neither flagged this shirt, and it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t see it as embarrassing. There’s also the matter of the fact that someone actually caught up with the guy with the T-shirt after the fact, and he stated point-blank that they read the shirt before they posed; he then denounced both Smith and Poilievre for backing down in the face of media questions, and because Poilievre didn’t live up to his expectation of being the Donald Trump of Canada. (Seriously?)

The other photo incident from the same Stampede weekend was Conservative MP and finance critic, Jasraj Hallan, posing with two men in shirts that read “Leave Our Kids Alone,” that also featured the logo that purports to be parents sheltering a child under an umbrella from a rainbow deluge. (That one of these men has been charged with criminal harassment is beside the issue here as it’s fair to assume that Hallan didn’t know this fact before the photo was taken.) “Leave Our Kids Alone” has been a growing movement, glommed onto by former members of the “Freedom Convoy” now that that particular movement has started to fizzle out, and which claims to stand up against the supposed indoctrination of children in schools around LGBTQ2S+ issues, but most especially around so-called “gender ideology.” Poilievre’s office has said nothing about this particular incident—no denunciation, no apology. Neither has either of the two openly queer MPs in the party, but I don’t expect them to say anything publicly about these incidents, even though they may be raising the issues behind closed doors.

 

While the “Straight Pride” photos were bad enough, there are more layers to the Hallan photo that are pointing to more troubling developments within the conservative discourse in Canada. The fact that this movement frames homophobia and transphobia as the protection of children is a return to some very old libellous tropes that never did go away after Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign from 1977, but it’s also clear that conservative politicians in Canada see votes to be gained in aligning with this message. New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs has made this political calculus—so much so that he has threatened to go to an election over it, also hoping that this can win him enough votes to overcome internal party objections to his autocratic management style and forestall a challenge to his leadership. And the fact that Poilievre has backed up Higgs with his insisting that Justin Trudeau should “butt out” and “let parents raise kids” has fuelled the people in this “leave our kids alone” movement.

Compounding this is the fact that the people in this movement have also been weaponizing Muslim parents, feeding them disinformation about what is being taught in the school systems (not to mention misdirecting the blame at the federal government, who are not responsible for education), which is creating an uncomfortable situation where a far-right movement is pitting two minority groups against one another. Of course, trying to use the queer and trans communities as a wedge to attract the votes of socially conservative ethno-cultural communities is nothing new for conservatives in this country—conservatives in Ontario managed this when rebelling against the sex-ed curriculum changes that Kathleen Wynne’s government put into place in 2015, and it was Jason Kenney’s preferred tactic when he was multiculturalism minister in the Harper government, though its success has been wildly overplayed and mythologized by legacy media. Still, the culture of disinformation is so much more advanced than it was when Kenney was trying 15 years ago.

Amidst all of this, something else has become abundantly clear, which is that Poilievre has demonstrated nothing short of complete and utter cowardice when it comes to standing up for the rights of queer and trans people, even though he pays lip service to their freedom, and even though his adoptive father is gay and he chose a lesbian as his deputy leader. Instead, because Poilievre is so determined to try and win votes from the far-right and the People’s Party of Canada voters who previously sat out of elections rather than vote for Conservatives, he is willing to be silent as the rhetoric gets increasingly toxic, and starts to head into the territory of hate speech. He tried to get his spokesperson to denounce the “Straight Pride” shirt so he personally wouldn’t be seen doing so, he avoided any mention on social media, he simply gave a terse “I don’t agree with the T-shirt” rather than an apology when pressed by reporters, and he has been silent on the “leave our kids alone” groups. It’s all a sign that he’s too afraid of alienating this voter base in order to stand up for what he knows is right.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

Read More About:
Politics, Opinion, Canada, Homophobia

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