Many shocked by Harrisite’s Egale prize.
As a queer teenager, I cut my activist teeth fighting cuts to youth programs during the Mike Harris years. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that LGBT advocacy group Egale Canada was giving its inaugural Leadership Award to one of the architects of the Common Sense Revolution.
At a gala fundraising dinner at the King Edward Hotel on June 5, Egale Canada honoured Jaime Watt, the openly gay senior communications adviser to Harris and Ernie Eves, for his "outstanding contribution to LGBT human rights in Canada."
What? How did an operative for a government so hostile to the rights of minorities score a top gay prize?
"I make no apologies for it," says Egale executive director Helen Kennedy. "We are a non-partisan organization."
Kennedy credits Watt with ensuring the passage of Bill 5, which changed provincial statutes to give same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex common-law couples.
It is described in the gala program as "the most significant piece of equality rights legislation in Ontario's history."
All right, but let's get the history straight. The Harris government was forced to pass Bill 5 after it appealed a same-sex alimony case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In May 1999, the court ruled that the definition of "spouse" in Ontario's family law was unconstitutional and gave the provincial government six months to change it. Five months later, the Tories introduced Bill 5, named An Act To Amend Certain Statutes Because Of The Supreme Court Of Canada Decision In M. v. H."
"Jaime Watt spent his entire political career working for politicians who fought against us," says queer activist Stephen Seaborn, who attended the gala and was shocked by the award.
Indeed, most gay activists remember the Harris years as a time of cutbacks that most affected programs for vulnerable communities.
"There was an erosion of public infrastructure" in those years, says Gilles Marchildon, former executive director of Egale. "This disproportionately affected people who were already marginalized."
In 1998, for example, the Harris government closed Wellesley Hospital, widely seen as the most welcoming hospital for LGBT people in Toronto, with one of the best HIV/AIDS treatment programs in the country.
The same year, the Tories delisted sex reassignment surgery from OHIP. Some trans people were forced to stop in the middle of transitioning.
As well, says Seaborn, a member of the Campaign for Public Education, "anti-homophobia education programs were pretty well first on the chopping block when the Harris government slashed school board budgets.
"This year's dinner was billed as a fundraiser for safe schools, and here we are honouring a Harris operative whose efforts totally gutted these initiatives," he says.
But it's not just Watt's activities in the 90s that Kennedy refers to. She also points to his contributions to Egale when the organization found itself losing financial and volunteer support after same-sex marriage was legalized.
Watt, who runs the public relations firm Navigator, provides Egale with free space in its office on Wellington.
Could the fact that he's Egale's landlord and benefactor have played a part in the award?
"No, not at all," responds Kennedy. "Why would it?" The decision to present the award, she says, was made by the gala committee.
In addition to Kennedy and another Egale staffer who both work in space donated by Watt, the gala committee of nine included a Navigator staff member.
Watt himself bristles at the suggestion that his donations to Egale might have had a bearing on the award. "If I believed that were the reason, I would return it, " he says, adding that he has helped in governance and organizational development of charities like Casey House and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
In his acceptance speech, Watt credited Egale's courage, acknowledging that some people were "not happy" about his receipt of the award. He attributed their objections to partisanship and joked about how difficult it was to "come out" as a Conservative within the LGBT community.
He wasn't the only conservative at Egale's dinner. Also in attendance was MP John Baird.
Despite Baird's vigorous applause for same-sex marriage, when he was Treasury Board president in 2006 he cancelled the Court Challenges Program that allowed citizens to fight discriminatory treatment in the courts, the very program Egale relied on to mount its legal challenges.
With friends like these, does Egale need enemies?