There has been a lot of media coverage around Andrew Scheer’s notable absence from the Vancouver Pride Parade over the August long weekend. The articles are always coupled with bright, smiling photographs with the other Leaders. Indeed, few photos exist where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks more ebullient than at Pride.
Media coverage of Scheer’s decision not to attend has focused on the Social Conservatives in the Conservative Party to whom Scheer’s absence – the argument goes – is pandering. Some party representatives have emphasized that this is in fact a misunderstanding of what was a protracted internal dialogue and a strategic political calculus to not attend because of Vancouver Pride’s implications for freedom of expression.
The Case for Freedom of Expression
As reported by CTV News, the Vancouver Pride Society (which runs the Vancouver Pride Parade) “uses a scored questionnaire to determine how an applicant organization’s official policies support the LGBTQAI2S+ community” wherein applicants below a certain score will not be allowed to participate in the parade.
Notably, the Vancouver Pride Parade’s Rules and Regulations give the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) editorial power over the content of any literature or collateral that a parade entrant distributes, and can remove or ban an entrant if the VPS deems their content – nebulously – “inappropriate.” This clause is difficult for Conservatives to reconcile with the value of freedom of expression. For Scheer, this clause effectively means that he must forfeit his right to freedom of expression in exchange for marching in the parade alongside the other party leaders. This was an unacceptable trade-off for Scheer and the Conservative Party because, regardless of a conservative voter’s social views, what binds conservatives together is the primacy of freedom of expression.
Conservative candidate for Vancouver Center, David Cavey, articulated this argument by citing the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Public Library being barred from the parade for hosting speakers Jenn Smith and Meghan Murphey, respectively.
The Party has stressed that this decision is also not an issue of ideology around same-sex marriage. Scheer has been well-regarded as a unifier within the party even before his days as Speaker of the House. His election as Leader of the Conservative Party in 2017 speaks to his ability to appeal to and cooperate with the diverse factions within the CPC, ranging from Social Conservatives (thanks to his religion) to libertarians and gay conservatives like LGBTory (by refusing to reopen the debate on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion) to Westerners (despite being born in Ottawa, Scheer made a home in Saskatchewan where he won office one year after relocating there with his soon-to-be wife, Jill). As a result of the CPC Leadership Election’s ranked ballot electoral system, Scheer’s strategy to become leader was fundamentally about being the best or most palatable second (or even third) choice for the greatest number of Conservative Party members.
Why Stay Silent?
If the above explanation holds, the question should shift from “why didn’t Andrew Scheer attend Pride?” to “why isn’t Andrew Scheer himself clarifying the reason why he was absent?”
While some Conservative incumbents and candidates have made their reasons to attend or not attend Pride Parades around the country clear – be that personal preferences or the exclusion of police – the fact that the Conservative Party Leader has stayed quiet on the issue has enabled other political parties, namely the Liberals, to take hold of the media narrative.
While Scheer’s campaign has reaffirmed his commitment to “fighting for the rights and protection of all Canadians, including those in the LGBT community,” the Prime Minister was able to get in the last word: “It’s just unfortunate that there are still some party leaders who want to be prime minister who choose to stand with people who are intolerant instead of standing with the LGBT community.”
This is especially powerful ammunition for Prime Minister Trudeau, whose campaign strategy appears to include riling up his progressive base over social issues, like conversion therapy, perhaps to pre-empt a rehash of SNC Lavalin-era criticisms of “fake feminism” later in the election.
However, there may be a logic to Scheer’s silence…
First, Scheer is probably counting on this issue to die off by the end of this weekend, and likely hopes that his silence will deprive the issue of oxygen until it fades away.
Second, and more importantly, Scheer may want to hold off on bringing the freedom of expression issue to the forefront until after the writ drops, when his base is paying more attention instead of simply reading headlines. During the dog days of summer when Canadians are up at the cottage generally avoiding the news cycle, conservative voters may simply get annoyed that an emotional subject is being brought up before the election has even officially begun. With a divisive issue likely to incite both conservatives and progressives and where all participants will sustain some bruises, Scheer may be showing the patience and discipline to wait for a more optimal moment.
This situation has implications for every party.
For Conservatives, strategists should stay close to their ex-urban and suburban fiscally-conservative socially-liberal voters who may worry Scheer is too socially conservative to vote Conservative in October. These red Tories may therefore need to be mollified with further examples of Scheer’s support for the LGBTQ+ community and other social issues.
Liberal strategists, on the other hand, should seek to fan the flames of this issue and continue to position Scheer as too socially conservative for most Canadians.
The NDP and Greens should look for opportunities to exacerbate this story to implicate both the Conservatives and Liberals in a mutually-bruising tête-à-tête, for instance by pushing both parties into a corner to discuss freedom of expression that will incite and divide their bases. (Top grades if Liberal voters are consequently turned off by the LPC’s negative discourse and turn to Elizabeth May or Jagmeet Singh for a ‘sunnier ways’ leader.)
What seems most likely is that the political niceties during the dog days of summer will soon be coming to a close.