When a bevy of Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs released a video last week to honour a gay Ottawa teen who took his own life, it inevitably sparked controversy.
If the participants in the It Gets Better video in the memory of Jamie Hubley deserve credit for speaking out, they also had to know they would face charges of hypocrisy, given the Conservative history on same-sex rights.
Hubley took his life after being bullied for his sexual orientation at his Ottawa high school, and his father, an Ottawa city councillor, bravely shared the family’s sorrow in the hope that it would force change in the country’s schools. The sad Hubley story has received global attention.
Three ministers, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, are featured in the video, which has so far been viewed more than 12,000 times.
It was an important gesture from the caucus and cabinet members who lent their voice to this issue.
But they have also invited a review of this government’s record when it comes to Canada’s gay, lesbian and transgendered population.
On Friday in the House of Commons, Liberal Scott Brison charged the Conservatives “have fought and voted against every advancement of gay rights in Canada, from pension benefits to marriage to transgender rights.’’
This is the government that cut funding to gay pride events in Toronto and Vancouver.
And two of the featured ministers in the video — Toews and Ambrose — opposed what is perhaps the ultimate reason to believe it gets better: same-sex marriage. Toews argued in 2006 that the onus was on those who wanted to change the traditional definition of marriage to prove it wouldn’t hurt future generations.
Ambrose was less rigid, backing the traditional view of marriage but supporting spousal benefits for gays and lesbians.
Dan Savage, the Seattle columnist who started the It Gets Better movement, wrote that Canada’s Conservatives, who have made life worse for gays and lesbians in the past, can have evolving views.
“But it’s going to take more than a video to undo the damage done by Vic Toews and Canada’s conservatives,’’ Savage wrote. “This was, quite literally, the least Vic and his conservatives could do. The very least.’’
Beyond the video, this government could use its majority to highlight the problem of bullying and homophobia in Canadian schools.
It could follow the lead of interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who has called for a national suicide prevention strategy and a dialogue on bullying that will empower victims to fight back.
The Liberals used their opposition day earlier this month to highlight the suicide rate in this country, which Rae says is three times higher per capita than in the U.S.
The Conservatives have created the Mental Health Commission, which is due to report back by the end of 2012 with a strategy to deal with mental illness in Canada.
But it can start making a substantive difference as early as this week, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends the Commonwealth summit in Australia.
Of the 54 members of the anachronistic Commonwealth, 41 still outlaw homosexuality and there is expected to be a push for the decriminalization of homosexuality at the Perth summit.
Harper has spoken in favour of decriminalization before, most notably with his condemnation of an anti-gay bill in Uganda that would have instituted the death penalty for homosexual acts.
Baird has promised Canadian opposition to such horror will be heard at the Perth summit.
“It is completely unacceptable that homosexuality continues to be criminalized in a majority of Commonwealth countries, and we will certainly take that issue to the summit,’’ he told the Commons.
The video in the memory of a young, tragic victim of anti-gay bullying was one thing.
Jamie Hubley’s memory can really be honoured by the Conservative government by giving its full voice to the move to bring much of the Commonwealth out of the dark ages.
Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star.