Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s refusal to openly reject conscience rights is the party’s fatal flaw, according to one woman who until recently was a vocal party supporter.
Kathleen Smith of Edmonton says she worked hard to promote a party that shared her values, frequently writing in support of it online, attending political dinners and making an effort to meet Danielle Smith.
Smith, the writer, withdrew her support in a lengthy post on her blog Kikki Planet, after learning from a Fast Forward Weekly article that the party leader promoted the protection of conscience rights.
“Once this policy was made known to me I knew I had to do something, because I’ve been supporting them online so vocally that I felt I had to be responsible and say ‘my bad, I didn’t know about this and I can’t support this,’” says Smith.
The concept of conscience rights is most often applied to publicly employed marriage commissioners, who could refuse to perform a marriage for a homosexual couple based on moral opposition to the practice. Additionally, a doctor who is morally opposed to birth control could theoretically refuse to provide it to a patient. Gay marriage has been legal in Alberta since 2005.
As a gay rights activist, Kathleen Smith says she made a point of learning where the party stood on the issue. She says she never would have joined the Wildrose had she known it created a policy that could conceivably hamstring minority rights.
Since posting her blog, Smith says she has been the target of online attacks, berated for criticizing conscience rights and withdrawing support from the Wildrose. She has also repeatedly asked party leader Danielle Smith via Twitter whether the Wildrose Party does indeed intend to allow public servants to deny services based on moral opposition. She has yet to receive a direct yes or no answer.
“You’re a leader. Act like one. Answer the question. Tell your candidates how they should be answering the question, or instruct them what your policy even is,” says the one-time supporter.
The issue of Danielle Smith’s support for conscience rights arose in August 2011 when she answered a question on a survey sent to party leaders from the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association. She later confirmed her position in an interview with Fast Forward Weekly in September, 2011, in which she said, “we know that there are some people who have a religious objection to performing those marriages, so we think the solution that has been tried in other provinces is a reasonable one where somebody who does have an objection to doing that would make a referral to another marriage commissioner so that those marriages can be performed.... Unfortunately, how these two issues have played out in the past is we have created winners and losers,” says Smith. “We’ve created tiers of rights. We’ve said that some people’s rights are more important than other people’s rights.”
The Wildrose Party did not respond to requests to interview Danielle Smith for this story.
On Twitter, Smith responded to Kathleen Smith by bringing attention to her party’s policy on human rights, saying that those who were denied service based on conscience rights would have to go to court to fight the decision and would receive government funding to do so.
Dan Shapiro is a researcher with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics. He says while other provinces have attempted to allow people to opt out of their duties based on moral grounds, such allowances have been ruled contrary to the Canadian charter of rights.
“I don’t know that a law like that would actually pass muster in Alberta,” says Shapiro.
Other party leaders are surprised the issue is resurfacing. Liberal Leader Raj Sherman says it hasn’t come up on the campaign trial, but that his party believes public servants must do their job without discrimination.
“The number 1 issue is health care, the number 2 issue is education,” says Sherman. “The reality is, whether you’re heterosexual or homosexual, people have the right to spend their lives together.”
Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor is more forceful in his opposition to legislating conscience rights.
“We don’t have a party policy per se because we’ve just pretty much accepted that this is the normal state of being in, hopefully, Canada and the world and Alberta,” says Taylor. “Marriage commissioners are required to provide the services without discrimination, so they should. And if a marriage commissioner objects to marrying someone on the grounds of sexual orientation, or other grounds, you know, like interracial marriage and those things, then they shouldn’t be a marriage commissioner.”
Taylor says unequivocally he would ask a public servant to resign if he or she were unable to perform their job for reasons of conscience.
Appealing both to potential voters who want conscience rights protected and those who see it as an extremist desire to curtail the rights of groups they are morally opposed to has long been a problem for the Progressive Conservative party. However, it seems it is not a question the PCs are interested in addressing now.
Despite originally agreeing to an interview for this story, Premier Alison Redford declined to comment. An aide explained the cancellation in an email, writing: “I have discussed with our team and unfortunately we are going to hold off on approaching this particular subject.... If there is another topic you would like to discuss I would be happy to look into booking it. Things change quickly on the campaign trail and I am sorry about the last-minute cancellation.”
Shapiro says issues like this never really disappear.
“That’s always true that there’s a balancing act and that there’s tension between Canadian rights and values,” he says.
“People are interested in [moral issues in politics], and there is a hunger for having a good, well-informed discussion about these issues... where people get a chance to bring their own views into that discussion. And I think that that’s important to do, and I wouldn’t want to see that diminished in any way,” says Shapiro. “Governments make moral decisions all the time. Even the most seemingly simple things are value laden.”