When friends fall out

Last week the anti-feminist lobby group Real Women of Canada launched an attack on Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who had, according to a press release written by national vice-president Gwen Landolt...

Last week the anti-feminist lobby group Real Women of Canada launched an attack on Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who had, according to a press release written by national vice-president Gwen Landolt, “awarded $200,000 of Canadian taxpayers’ money by way of the Department of Foreign Affairs to special interest groups in Uganda and Kenya to further his own perspective on homosexuality.”

Mr. Baird’s perspective on homosexuality brings him into conflict with the Ugandan government, which proposes the death penalty for gays. In what Landolt describes as “the strange, intolerant world Mr. Baird wishes to impose on sovereign countries,” gay sex in Kenya would not be punishable by 14 years in one of the world’s harshest prisons, while in Russia, if Baird had his way, it would not be possible to jail and fine someone for speaking in favour of gay rights, holding a pride parade, or engaging in – I swear I am not making this up -“relations not conducive to procreation.”

You could almost hear the shudder run through the conservative backrooms of Canada; the staunchest bastion of social conservatism had just fired a shot across the bow of the Conservative Party. Baird is the Harper government’s jewel: a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative spawned in Harper’s favourite pond, Mike Harris’s disastrous Ontario government. He’s also a personable, quick-witted partisan who, it’s said, can schmooze a room in ways the wooden Harper can only dream of. Real Women of Canada is the extreme right-wing’s vanguard in its desperate battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Canadians. Should this quarrel live on until election time, it could do real damage to the Conservative brand.

For RWoC and the Conservative Party to fall out is no small matter. The two grew up together, and have faced some tough times at each other’s side. Real Women had to cope with public criticism over the fact that founding director Rita Anne Hartmann was a real neo-Nazi with close ties to the Ku Klux Klan, while the young Reform Party, driven by public outcry, was obliged to dismiss several right-wing extremist candidates and MPs.

In 1989, according to Murray Dobbin in his book Preston Manning and the Reform Party, as founding members of the extremist Northern Foundation, Hartmann and Stephen Harper fought shoulder-to-shoulder in a losing campaign in support of the South African Apartheid regime.

RWoC was founded in 1983, largely in response to the rise of the feminist group the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Though a much smaller organization than NAC, RWoC had connections in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, and was influential in inhibiting progress on abortion, equal pay, universal daycare, and gay rights.

In those days, RWoC and Reform were cut from the very same cloth. Conservative pundit Dalton Camp, after attending an early Reform convention, declared “The speechifying gives off acrid whiffs of xenophobia, homophobia, and paranoia – like an exhaust – in which it seems clear both orator and audience have been seized by some private terror: immigrants, lesbians, people out of work or from out of town and criminals.” In other words, the speeches were much like what you may read on the RWoC website today.

It’s only a year ago that RWoC and the Harper conservatives were still so chummy that the government gave the lobby group a box of Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medallions to distribute as it pleased. How did things come to such a pass that these old pals are suddenly at odds? The rift grew from the fact that the Conservative Party has to operate in the real world, while Real Women inhabit a fantasy – a world in which theirs is the “mainstream” view, and they are the real women.

Canadians, by a huge margin, oppose everything RWoC stands for. In seat-rich Ontario and BC, 66 per cent of respondents to a survey favoured same-sex marriage. The survey didn’t ask, but let’s take it as given that at least that number would expect their foreign affairs minister to take a stand against the death penalty for gays. Only five per cent of Canadians surveyed believe that all abortion should be illegal, and 59 per cent are opposed to “re-opening the abortion debate.”

Real Women don’t need to be troubled by the unpopularity of their ideas, they can operate quite nicely on the generosity of a few well-heeled members and donors. But the Conservative Party can only travel so far on the support of the far right wing. If they want to continue to govern, they can’t be the government their hard-line supporters want them to be. To RWoC, “homosexual activists” are “a tyrannical minority.” To the Harper government, they’re a significant voting block in hotly contested urban ridings.

Fringe groups like RWoC take a long time to fade away. Like barnacles they cling to the underside of political life long after they should have perished from irrelevance. Bit by bit, Real Women are slowly slipping away into the past of their 1950s housewife fantasies. If last week’s outburst helped to hasten that slide, that’s cause for celebration. Canada will be a better place without them.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.