EDMONTON – Almost two months after anti-gay remarks by one candidate helped sink the Wildrose party’s bid for power in Alberta, party leader Danielle Smith began the long process of mending fences Tuesday.
Smith joined members of Edmonton’s gay and lesbian community as they toured the city’s police operations garage in a southside bunker building as part of the annual Pride festival.
Smith chatted amicably â€” clearly doing more listening than talking â€” while others toured the facility, eating finger snacks and checking out bomb-defusing robots, sniper rifles and a tank with a mounted battering ram.
She met with organizer and community spokesman Kristopher Wells and said later that they’ve made plans to meet again.
“I said we need to meet and have a conversation about where the right to free speech and freedom of religion begins and where it bumps up against equality rights,” Smith told reporters.
“He (Wells) acknowledged he’s gone through the same kind of process with members in other political parties because there is a diversity of views.”
Smith heard opposing views but met with no organized protest, due in no small part to the venue: a windowless warehouse facility surrounded by cameras and fences topped with razor wire, and with armed officers at every entrance.
A lone demonstrator emerged across the street, carrying a fiery orange sign decorated in red flames bearing the words “Wildrose Bigots Burn in Hell.”
He paraded back and forth for five minutes before the assembled media cameras then put the sign down and went inside to join the others.
Wells said he appreciated Smith visiting and learning more about his community, but said she still needs to repair relationships starting with the comments by failed Edmonton Wildrose candidate Alan Hunsperger.
It was one of Hunsperger’s blog postings â€” with its condemnation of gays and gay rights â€” that helped turn fortune’s favour away from his own party in the final days of the April election campaign.
In the posting, Hunsperger scolded the Edmonton Public School Board for tolerating gays and lesbians. He added that to live as a gay person is to “suffer for the rest of eternity in the lake of fire.”
His comments took off in the media and were immediately adopted by opponents as shorthand for Wildrose intolerance.
Smith was criticized for refusing to sanction Hunsperger and for not coming down harder on a Calgary candidate who made what some interpreted as racist remarks.
Smith said their views were not Wildrose views and would not be Wildrose policy. But she defended everyone’s right to an opinion.
The resulting furor was considered one of the tipping points that turned a potential Wildrose victory into a majority re-election for Redford on April 23.
On Tuesday, Wells said the Hunsperger matter is not closed.
“Myself, like many in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, are still waiting for Danielle Smith to apologize for those comments,” he said.
“There is no apology on record.”
Smith wouldn’t go there.
“Mr. Hunsperger’s views are not my views. They’re not the views of my party and they’re not the views of my caucus,” she said.
“If he wants to seek an apology, he should seek it from Mr. Hunsperger. I believe our party has demonstrated that we’re open and when we’re elected we represent members from all communities.”
Smith’s visit was the second by an Alberta politician at Pride week.
On Saturday, Premier Alison Redford made history by attending the Pride parade, taking to the stage and donning the traditional rainbow sash as thousands cheered and chanted her name.
Her government also announced last week that after a three-year hiatus brought on by budget austerity, sex-change surgeries would once again be funded out of the public purse.
Wells said Redford’s appearance was a watershed moment for a community that has fought the Tories for years to have basic rights for gay people enshrined in law.
“To have the premier speak at the Pride parade for the first time was historic.”
Wells said the decision to reinstate funding for the surgery was equally groundbreaking.
“It represents the first time in the history of this province that the LGBT community has not had to take the government to court and win its rights.”
Wells said Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t get it.
Smith has said taxpayer dollars for sex-change surgery would be better used for more pressing needs such as insulin pumps and hearing aids.
Wells said gender reassignment surgery is not a frill, but medically necessary.
Smith said her concern is not medical, but political. She said the decision came out of the premier’s office for political reasons, undercutting a process that needs to be based on science and need.
“When you have the premier making political decisions about what gets listed and what gets delisted, that’s what’s destabilizing to our health-care system,” she said.
Smith was not at the parade but had she been she would have seen up close that the Lake of Fire won’t soon be extinguished.
Pride organizers are doing brisk business this week selling T-shirts that read: “I Stayed at the Lake of Fire and All I got Was This Lousy T-shirt.”
Proceeds are to go to a camp for gay and lesbian youth.