Svend Robinson discusses 'rogue' conservative candidate, progressive unity and LGBTQ rights

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Image: Svend Robinson/Twitter

It was an eventful week in the Vancouver-area riding of Burnaby North-Seymour. 

The Conservative party dropped its candidate for the riding, Heather Leung, on Friday, October 4, after after a video resurfaced of her making homophobic and transphobic comments.

The video, first posted by local news outlet Burnaby Now in 2011, showed Leung protesting the Burnaby School Board's support for a policy designed to protect LGBTQ youth from bullying. In the clip, Leung claims "homosexuals recruit" children, and describes the LGBTQ community as "perverted." 

However, Leung's extreme views were already extreme views were already widely known before the video emerged. During her short-lived campaign as the Conservative nominee for this year's federal election, the ex-Tory also expressed extreme views on abortion, telling the anti-choice group Campaign Life Coalition she opposed women's reproductive rights even in cases of rape and incest. She also supports "conversion therapy," an abusive and pseudo-scientific practice designed to "cure" LGBTQ people.

It is too late for the Conservatives to field a new candidate, and Elections Canada has stated that Leung's name must appear on the ballot next to the Conservative party label. Despite officially running as an independent, Leung was reportedly campaigning last weekend still using Conservative signage and other materials.

Former Burnaby MP and current NDP candidate Svend Robinson, the first openly gay MP in Canadian history, led the calls for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to drop Leung. caught up with Robinson to discuss Leung's ejection from the Conservative party, the current state of LGBTQ rights in Canada and the future for progressive unity.

Alex Cosh: What do you make of the fact that Leung is still running and campaigning with Conservative materials?

Svend Robinson: She's a rogue candidate. Obviously the Conservative Party had cut her loose, and they had no choice. She should never have been approved as a candidate in the first place. I called my press conference on Friday morning and she was gone by four o'clock that same day. 

She will still obviously get some votes from her hardcore group of social conservative followers, but beyond that, the question is who are the other people that are going to support her?

AC: Do you think the exposure of Leung's views is an opportunity to get some traditionally conservative voters committed to a progressive platform?

SR: I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have contacted my office saying they were appalled and disgusted with her as a candidate, and they can't vote for Justin Trudeau, so for the first time in their life they're going to vote for me. I had a couple who came in and said they wanted to replace their Conservative sign with a big Svend Robinson sign.

I hope I get more [Conservatives voting for me] but it won't be because of the radical platform. Many of them on the Burnaby side of the constituency will be voting for me because of the work I did, because they've said they thought very highly of me as a hard-working and dedicated constituency representative. I'm under no illusions, they're not going to suddenly transform from conservatives into socialists, but they may very well vote for me as the best representative for this community.

AC: Leung is not the first Conservative candidate this election cycle that Scheer has dropped for making hateful remarks. Are you concerned that Scheer has lost control over a growing thread of anti-LGBTQ proponents within his party?

SR: No, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say he's lost control over that. They've been kept on a pretty tight leash for the most part. She [Leung] was particularly outrageous.

They're not fools. They realize virulent homophobia and transphobia is politically toxic now, and that's pretty amazing actually. It's not been that many years when that absolutely wouldn't have been the case. When I came out in '88, my office was trashed, I got death threats; the premier of B.C. [and] the premier of Saskatchewan attacked me as a bad role model. That discourse now is just completely beyond the acceptable political discourse. Certainly we've made progress on that front, not to say that there certainly isn't homophobia and transphobia out there that we have to confront. But among the mainstream parties -- I'm of course excluding the People's Party and [Maxime] Bernier -- that discourse is not acceptable.

AC: What will you be saying to constituents in your riding who are alarmed by Leung's comments and who might be concerned these kinds of views are making a comeback?

SR: After I called my press conference, both the Green party candidate and the Liberal MP, Terry Beech, strongly supported my call for her to be dumped. She was so far outside the values this community represents and celebrates. I don't think anybody should be concerned beyond a tiny, fringe element of people that she dragged to the nomination meeting, and will obviously continue to support her. She's in a very tiny minority. 

AC: Your call for Leung's resignation seems to have galvanized quite a bit of cross-party support, and you've also received an endorsement from the former B.C. Green party leader Stuart Parker. Given the scale of the global climate emergency, do you hope that progressives will work harder towards eventually uniting behind a single platform? Is there any hope of the federal Green party getting behind your candidacy in this riding?

SR: The short answer to the second question is: not likely. Obviously it would be great if Elizabeth May took the same position with my candidacy as she has with Jody Wilson-Raybould's candidacy in Vancouver Granville. Elizabeth and I go back 30 years. She knows my environmental track record. I'm the only New Democrat that David Suzuki is endorsing. Tzeporah Berman came out with a strong endorsement as well, and that means a lot. 

I'm hoping that progressives and environmentalists who might otherwise be tempted to vote Green will recognize that my track record and long history of environmental activism will get those values reflected in this election. But also, it's a first-past-the-post system, and we're not both going to win. They've got to take a good hard look at who has the best chance of taking this constituency back from Terry Beech, and the answer is very clear: it's me.

AC: How is the campaign going on the ground?

SR: The feedback has been very positive. We've had a terrific campaign. Lots of dedicated volunteers. My riding now encompasses the North Shore, which is more challenging, politically and demographically, than Burnaby, but I'm feeling very optimistic and hopeful. Two weeks is an eternity in politics, but at this point it's feeling good. 

AC: Is there a long-term role that you would like to play in uniting strands of the progressive movement?

SR: Absolutely. If I can play that role, that's something that I would very much hope to be able to do, the day after the election. Those of us who care passionately about the future of the planet and taking on corporate power are going to have to, hopefully, find common ground.

Alex Cosh is a journalist and PhD student based in Powell River, B.C. His work has appeared on PressProgressLeft Foot Forward and in several local B.C. publications.

Image: Svend Robinson/Twitter

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