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ELISE STOLTE: UCP's homophobic, racist scandals appear unlikely to shift many votes in rural ridings


Drayton Valley — A sales woman at a Drayton Valley auction says she’ll vote UCP because she always voted conservative. An oil services manager calls the UCP the lesser of two evils. Two women at the bakery lower their voices, glance around and say they actually agree with the comments local candidate Mark Smith made about homosexuality.

Scandal after scandal has plagued the UCP campaign but has it been enough to shake leader Jason Kenney’s base in the rural heartland?

Thirty-five of Alberta’s ridings are rural and a party needs 44 of 87 seats to form a majority government. Heading into the last week of the campaign I went to Drayton Valley, part of a rural riding with a candidate now at the centre of controversy. It’s also among the hardest hit from the oil and gas decline.

Here, the scandals have so far only caused a ripple.

Smith got in trouble over a homophobic statement in a 2013 sermon, plus position papers he helped author after being elected as a Wildrose MLA in 2015. In the sermon at Calvary Baptist Church, he suggested the love of LGBTQ people is not “good love.” In the first position paper, he argues independent and Catholic schools have the right to fire a teacher for being homosexual. The second paper argues against a ban on conversion therapy, a scientifically discredited practice many patients and doctors say causes incredible harm.

That’s led to even conservative pundits — most prominently radio-host Charles Adler — and others to call for UCP Leader Jason Kenney to kick Smith out of the party. But here in Smith’s hometown, the only people I found hesitating were those for whom the issue is personal.

“I’m kind of on the fence,” said Tianna Harris, a legal assistant in Drayton Valley who came out as gay four years ago.

She was planning to vote UCP as the best chance to secure good oil industry jobs for the town. But Smith’s comments and the UCP eliminating the promise of anonymity for students in gay-straight alliances have shaken her. Students need those peer-support groups and without anonymity guaranteed, they likely won’t join.

This vote “is not just about feeding my family,” she added, planning to check out the Freedom Conservative candidate. “There’s a lot hanging in the balance.”

The election campaign has been bruising for many conservatives.

Two star UCP candidates in Calgary resigned after racist remarks. Other questions surround Kenney’s work in San Francisco, where he helped defeat an ordinance that allowed gay couples hospital visitation rights during the AIDS epidemic. Then there are candidates’ connections to the pro-life Wilberforce Project. And the “kamikaze campaign,” allegedly set up to help Kenney win the leadership, now has RCMP involved and multiple UCP insiders fined for illegal donations.

It was enough to have outraged Adler on his radio show last week to question his friend Kenney’s “moral compass”. 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen called the UCP “an absolutely unacceptable option.”

In Drayton Valley, Smith is a well-known former social studies teacher who was elected as a Wildrose MLA in 2015 and served as education critic. Many voters were his students and have been divided on the town’s Facebook group about whether his strong religious views made them feel uncomfortable in the classroom or not.

On the ground, election signs are sparse but overwhelmingly UCP. I found two for the Alberta Advantage Party, one for the Alberta Independence Party.

The town feels ignored — the UCP has taken rural areas for granted during this election campaign and they were forgotten by the NDP since the last election, said Mayor Michael Doerksen.

Most people realized the province can’t control the price of oil, which is really what tanked the economy, but the carbon tax and business tax increase felt like salt in the wound, he said. They want someone to fight, be aggressive, “tighten the screws” on pipeline opponents.

The town has been in a downturn since 2014. Development permits dropped to $3.8 million in 2017 from a high of $70 million in 2013, he said. The shadow population of workers, which once packed its 13 hotels, vaporized and the town’s population of 7,200 is likely shrinking, too.

But it’s not a ghost town, said Ashley Thompson, in sales at Team Sekura Auction. Only a dozen businesses or so have actually closed, she says. Others simply moved to lower rent locations.

She’ll vote UCP because she voted Wildrose before — nothing has shaken her trust. As for Smith’s homophobic comments, “it doesn’t really affect me,” she says. “I would have been really disappointed if we didn’t have a (UCP) candidate.”

At Bob Dale Oilfield Services, manager Jamie Capaniuk says he does “not want the NDP back in, no matter what.”

The UCP might not be perfect but they’ve got the best chance to win, he said. In his experience, Smith is an “outstanding individual” and the NDP should focus on its plan to lead rather than to “dig up dirt” on candidates.

Besides, he says, “there’s things in my life that I’ve said that I regret saying.”

The two women in the bakery who said they agree with Smith’s sermon, and that they also believe the Bible condemns homosexuality, would not give their names.

It’s highly unlikely Smith will lose his seat. That’s how strong the UCP have been polling in Alberta’s rural ridings.

But I feel sorry for LGBTQ youth growing up in any town that would look past, or even embrace, these kind of comments. The words were ugly and judgmental, and it wasn’t a one-off. The position papers were written after winning office and show a politician willing to act on prejudice.

It seems the religious right wants to make this into a clash of lifestyles, with everyone entitled to their opinion. But it’s not. It’s about a group of kids with a high rate of suicide, a high likelihood of ending up on the street. In 2016, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness found 30 per cent of youth living on the street identify as LGBTQ. It’s about giving those kids a place to figure this out in safety, on school grounds, among their peers.

Drayton Valley and many other rural areas in this province are suffering; people have lost their homes and businesses. I get that. But trashing the rights of a minority is not the way to build a better future.

estolte@postmedia.com

twitter.com/estolte

Elise Stolte is an opinion columnist at the Edmonton Journal.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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