In Alberta, it’s all about your base instincts

How sexual identity issues are affecting the race for leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party
Transgender student Wren Kauffman, 11, was born a girl but at the age of 9 started identifying as a boy and now lives his life as a male in Edmonton on Thursday August 29, 2013. Jason Franson/CP
Jason Franson/CP
Jason Franson/CP

A cool summer Sunday in Alberta. Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful Thomas Lukaszuk observes Father’s Day with his daughters, then leaves home early to attend the annual mayor’s Pride brunch in Edmonton. The brunch is a fundraiser for Camp Fyrefly, an institution some might not expect to find in the province of Mordor. It’s a “leadership retreat” for queer youth, founded in 2004 by scholars at the University of Alberta’s influential Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS).

Lukaszuk, a colourful Edmonton MLA who stepped down as jobs minister to run for his party’s big prize, had a special mission to perform at the brunch. Along with Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk, he was present to hand over one of the first Alberta birth certificates ever revised for a non-surgical change of sexual identity. The PC government moved fast to make this possible in the spring after a 23-year-old trans female, “C.F.”, took the province to court and convinced a Queen’s Bench justice to strike down part of the Vital Statistics Act. (“C.F.” got her new birth certificate Apr. 24.)

The recipient of the new document, Wren Kauffman, is a Camp Fyrefly alumnus aged 12. Born Wrenna Kauffman, Wren is living as a transgender boy and receiving hormone treatments to prevent menarche. He will be offered the opportunity to start taking male hormones later in adolescence, and could opt for reassignment surgery at 18.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, Lukaszuk’s rival Ric McIver was having a different Father’s Day. He summed it up conveniently in one tweet, albeit one requiring some annotation. “Loops for the Troops. [It’s an annual Father’s Day fun run benefiting military-related causes.] Phone call with Dad. Shooting Edge with son. [A gun range.] March for Jesus. Dinner with daughter.”

The March for Jesus is a Christian identity parade organized by Calgary’s non-denominational Street Church and its controversial leader, Artur Pawlowski. Pawlowski is perhaps best known for repeated legal run-ins with the city of Calgary, having invaded city hall for rowdy prayer sessions and unlawfully “hijacked” the front end of the 2012 Stampede parade. These shenanigans haven’t stopped Pawlowski from acquiring some political influence, and an interview in which McIver declares the pastor “great” and “a fearless man” appears on the Street Church’s website.

Also on the website: an explanation of the purpose of the March for Jesus, which complains that, “Last year alone, Calgary’s streets were flooded with people of wrong sexual preferences during a homosexual parade of over 30,000 attendees and none of them were embarrassed in the slightest to publicly even present their nakedness in front of families . . . they are not ashamed to declare the name of their master (Satan) . . .,” etc., etc.

In case you’re beginning to wonder, PC front-runner Jim Prentice spent the Sunday celebrating Philippine Independence Day in Calgary and visiting an Airdrie food bank event at that city’s bottle depot. Pretty boring stuff, compared to combatting Satan or opening up new battle theatres in the sexual revolution. Boring is probably just how he liked it.

All three candidates for the Alberta PC leadership agree that their party needs to act less like a booze-addled junta, so they are left to struggle over the fashionable preoccupation of our time: the treatment of sexual minorities. There is an emerging fight over the Alberta Human Rights Act, amended in 2009 to explicitly include sexual orientation. As a concession to conservative parents, the amendment required schools to warn parents in writing before bringing up religious or sexual topics in the classroom.

Groups such as ISMSS have painted a target on that clause, which McIver and Prentice support. Lukaszuk says he “would have a robust discussion” about throwing it out. Calgary Liberal Kent Hehr later stoked the fire in the enemy ranks with an assembly motion asking the government to require school boards—including Catholic ones—to permit “gay-straight alliances” in schools. The Conservatives split 22-12 against the motion, with Lukaszuk among the 12.

These are fringe issues, though, like all fringe issues, they are profoundly important to a few people. There are principled libertarian arguments on both sides of those controversies, but public schools are inherently illibertarian: Basically, it’s a debate over details of state indoctrination. Most people in Alberta probably aren’t worked up much. (Ask them about the math curriculum, if you want real anger.)

But a leadership race isn’t settled by “most people.” Lukaszuk wants to marshal the “keep the Progressive in the PCs” forces that decided the last two leadership contests. McIver, experienced at rabble-rousing in Calgary civic politics, has a base to stir up. There is room for two candidates on the final PC ballot. One of them will probably be Prentice. You can take the math from there.