The head of Canada's leading advocacy organization for LGBTQ Canadians says Pope Francis has shown more interest in reaching out to her community than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has so far.
Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, told CBC News Monday she's more than willing to have a sit-down conversation with Scheer, who is dealing with a backlash from within his party over his election loss — and the possible role played in that loss by his beliefs about same-sex marriage and his refusal to march in Pride parades.
"Even the Pope is more inclusive about [LGBTQ] people than Andrew Scheer," Kennedy said.
"We sit down with people who are struggling all the time. But I have no interest in being a photo-op. It would have to be for a meaningful authentic conversation that showed some tangible results."
Kennedy said Egale was invited by the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church to visit the Vatican last April to discuss decriminalization of homosexuality and the violence faced by members of the LBGTQ2 community around the globe.
Scheer's rival party leaders — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and the Greens' Elizabeth May — marched in Pride parades during the run-up to the election. The Conservative leader did not.
Scheer, a devout Catholic, was asked multiple times during the campaign to explain his views on same-sex marriage and abortion. He told reporters that he was not interested in divisive topics, insisting that a government led by him would not seek to reopen the debates on marriage equality or abortion and that the Conservative Party under his leadership would be inclusive and open.
"(Scheer's) position is that there are multiple ways to show his support (for the LGBTQ community)," said Simon Jefferies, Scheer's spokesperson, adding that the Conservative leader believes he didn't do enough during the campaign to get that message out.
"He has taken a number of tangible measures himself. He gave the official response to the apology to the LGBTQ community for the public servants who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation. He has called on the prime minister to better support LGBTQ refugees who are being persecuted around the world."
A message of 'fear'
Jefferies said Scheer will be doing more outreach with the LGBTQ community.
"He's had a lot of preliminary conversations with LGBTQ staff. He's spoken to MP Eric Duncan," Jefferies said, referring to the openly gay rookie Conservative MP. "The conversations are wide-ranging and private."
But by refusing to attend a Pride parade, Kennedy said, Scheer is sending a message that "he's afraid, he has a fear of the community, he doesn't understand the community, he's homophobic.
"He sends a really negative message to all of us, not only in Canada but around the world," she added.
"Pride is a significant part of our community, built out of politics and protest. It's a huge part of who we are. For lots of people who aren't out at work, or to their families, this is the only time of year where they can come out and feel accepted and feel welcome and feel part of a community."
'It's chosen family'
When politicians attend Pride events, said Kennedy, it sends a signal to the community and the nation that LGBTQ Canadians belong here.
"It's chosen family and for some of us, that's all we have," she said. "It's really important for that positive reinforcement from political leaders and from leaders within the community, to stand up and say it's OK to be who you are."
She said Scheer should consider attending the Pride parade in Whistler, B.C. next month. But first, she added, he'd need to clear the air by explaining himself.
"Why not apologize? Say, 'Look, I made a mistake,'" Kennedy said. "It's never too late to do the right thing, but you have to do it authentically. You come out and say, 'Look, I have struggled personally to balance my personal beliefs and my faith.'
"If he just shows up out of the blue at Pride, I don't think necessarily he will be welcome."
For the Vatican visit, Egale was joined by about 30 other groups and met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis's secretary of state.
"It's the first time in history it's ever happened," Kennedy said. "We presented a report and we are waiting for a statement about our meeting."
Scheer has been grappling with the issue of same sex marriage and his avoidance of Pride parades for months. Comments made to CBC Radio's The House this past weekend by the new deputy leader of the Conservative Party, MP Leona Alleslev, triggered an instant backlash.
Alleslev said that Scheer is free to choose not to march in a Pride parade, then said, "Have we asked anybody if they marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade?" Alleslev later apologized on Twitter.
Kennedy said Egale would be "happy to train the whole Conservative caucus" to help educate it about the challenges facing LGBTQ Canadians.
"Every day we do training with people who are struggling," said Kennedy. "Everybody needs it — even allies need it. You never stop learning about these issues."