LONDON, ONTARIO - This Friday, January 12 at 11 a.m. London, Ontario Mayor Matt Brown is scheduled to stand on the front steps of London City Hall and issue what he calls, a “long overdue” apology. “Gosh”, you might be wondering, recalling his last big apology in the spring of 2016 when he expressed his remorse for having an extramarital affair with his deputy mayor that disrupted city business for a month, “Has the randy old dog been at it again?”
But you’d be barking up the wrong tree altogether if that’s what you thought. No, this time Brown will be delivering an apology to London’s LGBTQ community for the behaviour of one of his mayoral predecessors, Dianne Haskett (1994 to 2000), who refused to issue a mayoral proclamation highlighting 1995’s Gay Pride Weekend and was subsequently charged with discrimination and fined $5,000 by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
A remarkable thing about this second-hand expression of regret is that Brown didn’t actually field a request from Haskett to deliver any sort of apology. Nor did Brown get her permission to do so. And going by what I know of her - and observing that she’s been cold shouldering the media ever since this stunt in political theatre was announced - I would gamble whatever bucks I could lay my hands on that Dianne Haskett doesn’t want this ginned-up proxy of a mea culpa delivered at all.
Indeed you might ask, what kind of person sees any value in an apology being expressed by anyone other than the person who committed the supposed wrongdoing? Well, in a word, “Liberals” do. They can’t get enough of these ventriloquistic expressions of remorse as was evident to any Canadian who managed to resist slashing his wrists during last year’s dismal parade of official Canada 150 events commemorating manifold historic instances of our wickedness and unworthiness.
In their report of the upcoming apology-like event, The London Free Press inadvertently suggests that Brown has developed a bad case of 'Me-Too-Justin-Me-Too': “On the heels of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology last month to Canadians who were discriminated against in the courts, military and public service for their sexuality, Brown plans to apologize ... on the front steps of City Hall, the same place where Haskett refused to raise the rainbow flag.”
In the more than 20 years since the standoff between Dianne Haskett and the LGBTQ community, a lot of misunderstandings and cartoonish assumptions have accrued which obscure what actually happened and what positions the various players actually held. That Brown's fatuous attempt to smooth out this old civic rupture is being construed as anything more significant than the hollowist virtue signalling, tells me that it's time we re-examined what really happened and what was at stake.
Following her election to the mayor’s chair in the fall of 1994, Dianne Haskett did not look forward to the prospect of having to make proclamations regarding one side or the other of socially contentious issues for which she knew there was a deeply held plurality of opinion. In March of ’95, Haskett made public a five-point policy, announcing that she would not issue any proclamation dealing with either side of the abortion question, anything having to do with sexuality or sexual orientation, or issues which would stir up controversy, promote illegal activity or incite hatred toward any group. This was after the Homophile Association of London Ontario (HALO) was known to be seeking a proclamation, and after an earlier Human Rights Tribunal had fined Hamilton’s mayor $5,000 for refusing to make a similar proclamation promoting the gay and lesbian lobby group in that city.
Critics would later charge that Haskett’s five-point policy was nothing more than a ruse, cobbled together so she could avoid making the HALO proclamation. But is it really so incriminating that a mayor – elected to that office only four months earlier and unlikely to yet be conversant with all the subtleties of the City’s 700 page policy manual should develop policies as she could in anticipation of upcoming exigencies? A city might not yet have any regulations regarding the control of exotic cats, but if you learn that the circus is coming to town in a few months’ time, why wouldn’t you take that opportunity to develop such regulations now?
The first item on the Mayor’s list of prohibited proclamation subjects was abortion, not sexual orientation. A few weeks before Pride Weekend, the London Convention Centre was slated to host the National Pro-Life Conference featuring Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roseanne Skoke as keynote speaker. Her Christian convictions being very well known by this point, Haskett anticipated that she might be asked to speak at the opening of that conference and wished to head off that possibility. In March of ’95, the Mayor was approached by a local organization wishing to have their Chastity Week proclaimed and she turned down that bid as well. Some gay activists later claimed that the chastity group was a fiction but I met the organizer who had put forth that request a couple of years later and he was still nursing his sense of disappointment that the Mayor wouldn’t promote his cause.
It is often necessary to remind Haskett’s less well informed critics that this entire unholy flap was only about proclamations. Historically, Londoners’ ability to quietly agree to disagree with one another, to live and let live, has been one of our greatest civic blessings. HALO was the oldest organization of its kind in all of Canada. Many artists, writers and other bohemian types cite London’s climate of benign neglect as a real boon in helping them forge their own identities and visions. As writer Keewatin Dewdney once said to me, “This town couldn’t care less what you do. You can get on with it here. London just leaves you alone.”
Significantly, the first concerted resistance HALO bumped into wasn’t owing to the unorthodoxy of the homosexual lifestyle. It wasn’t because of their desire to form a gay social club, to hold an annual parade, or establish gay-friendly church services and youth counseling programs for gay teens. Resistance only arose when HALO tried to compel the Mayor to give them an official stamp of approval by proclaiming Gay Pride Weekend in 1995. That demand – that bid to override precious freedoms of conscience, expression and religion by compelling approval from someone not constituted to genuinely bestow it – is what made Dianne Haskett draw her line in the sand and say ‘no’.
Also too readily forgotten is the fact that the Mayor was not alone in her refusal to proclaim Pride Weekend. In May of ’95 when it became clear that Haskett would not make the proclamation, Councillor Joe Swan, working closely with HALO president, Richard Hudler, brought a motion which offered Council the opportunity to make a ‘civic proclamation’. To their immense credit, HALO acknowledged that it wasn’t fair to force the Mayor to proclaim something she believed to be wrong and said that they would be satisfied with Council’s proclamation instead of hers.
Council then voted 14 to 5 to turn down that opportunity. Included among the ‘nays’ was Deputy Mayor Grant Hopcroft who would announce at his own mayoral campaign kickoff in September of ‘97 that he didn’t share Haskett’s scruples in this matter and would be happy to make the HALO proclamation. Once the Mayor and Council had both turned down their request, then HALO went to the Ontario Human Rights Commission with a complaint of discrimination filed against both the Mayor and City Council. The tribunal hearing, where the Mayor and Council were separately charged with discrimination, dragged on for seven days through August and September of 1997. Here is a column I wrote the day after Haskett finally took the stand:
For my money there isn’t a better 20th century play than Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’, based on the trial and martyrdom of St. Thomas More. Sitting in the court room Thursday afternoon as Mayor Dianne Haskett took the stand in the tribunal hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Commission on charges of discrimination, I was struck by some uncanny parallels between the play and the legal struggles of our Mayor.
As the play opens, Henry VIII is agitating to dump his first wife for Anne Boleyn, in search of the male heir who would always elude him. More is Lord Chancellor and such is his popularity and esteem among the people that he is the unofficial arbiter of moral values for the Royal Court. If the King can’t persuade More to consent to his divorce and remarriage by signing an oath which also appoints the adulterous monarch as head of the English Church, then he knows his people will judge him as corrupt.
More is determined to remain silent and not sign the oath as the King’s actions go against all his religious convictions. The King then has More put out of the way, imprisoning him in the Tower of London. With surprisingly little resistance otherwise, the King appears to win his way – readily reshaping the structure of the English Church and Parliament, securing the second in his eventual series of six benighted wives – but all this is not enough. As two of the King’s lackeys are heard to complain, “This silence of More’s is bellowing up and down England.” They must win More’s assent.
More’s daughter, Margaret, asks why he cannot save his skin by just reciting the oath. “Swear to the act and come out,” she pleads. “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth. Or so you’ve always told me. Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.”
More answers: “What is an oath then but words we say to God? When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Our Mayor has deeply held religious objections about homosexuality, adultery, premarital sex and abortion. Not wanting to impose her religious views on others, she hoped to keep officially silent on these matters. By dint of a 1989 City Council decision, proclamations like that which HALO seeks, are left to the sole discretion of the Mayor. In bringing her before the Human Rights Commission, HALO hopes to compel the Mayor to make their proclamation.
Last Thursday, Haskett was asked why she couldn’t separate her personal life and views from the office of Mayor. It is interesting to compare her answer with More’s, quoted above. “Frankly, I don’t know how that’s possible. I don’t know how one day a person can be themselves and another day, not be themselves. I am what I am and that’s what I believe. My spiritual life is tied up in my relationship with God. And to say at some point in time that I’m going to separate myself from that . . . I understand that some people can conceive of how to do that but I can’t conceive of how to do it. I think a person who separates themself from their deeply held beliefs ... at the very least they are a hypocrite. And at the very worst, they’re turning their back on God. And I can’t do that.”
After four days of fuzzy definitions at this hearing – where we were told that sexuality was entirely a ‘social construction’; that there are 32 different sexual orientations possible to the human animal (even throwing in bestiality, I conk out at four); that a homophile was anyone of any sexual orientation who was comfortable with all other orientations; that Pride marchers bellowing into a bullhorn outside the Mayor’s house were not a political assembly – the precision, eloquence and courage of the Mayor’s testimony were galvanizing.
When More knows that he’s doomed “to die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” because he won’t betray his conscience by swearing to the Act of Succession, he flings one final declaration at his persecutors: “I am a dead man. You have your desire of me. What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your road.”
That dreadful road leads directly to Court Room 20 on the 14th floor of London’s Provincial Court Building. I have little doubt that this hearing will find the Mayor guilty of discrimination. I also believe that ultimately, the truth will out. Almost 500 years ago a beloved public figure was put to death because a lecherous monarch resented the compelling strength of his religious convictions. With any luck Mayor Haskett should be allowed to keep her head. Otherwise, I believe we’re seeing the same sort of persecution today.
To no one’s surprise, the hearing found both the Mayor and City Council guilty of discrimination, fining both parties $5,000 each, and releasing that verdict on the day before the Mayor launched her re-election campaign. Calling that decision “unfair” and “wrong in fact and in law”, Haskett took a few days to decide what she would do next, particularly waiting to see how City Council would respond.
Haskett attended all seven days of the Human Rights hearing. Joe Swan was there for those couple days when he was called to testify. Ted Wernham and Anne Marie DeCicco were briefly sighted on courtroom pews, but I didn’t see any other Councillor go near the joint. Haskett knew she was there to defend her constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. One can only guess what passing whim caused 13 other councillors to reject the idea of making a civic proclamation in the first place. Not one of them faced a fraction of the heat which the Mayor endured for her stand, yet at the Council session of October 20th, those 13 politicians caved in completely; unanimously agreeing to not appeal the hearing’s decision and (with the sole exception of Councillor Ben Veel) agreeing to pay the fine and meet with HALO and make public statements of recognition for all that the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities have contributed to London.
The Mayor always knew that ultimately she would have to take this battle to the Supreme Court. This star chamber of a hearing only sought to determine a foregone verdict; that Haskett’s silence would be deemed discriminatory by dint of the Ontario Human Rights Code with its newly minted clause about sexual orientation. The Tribunal hearing was only the prelude to the real constitutional battle about freedom of expression but City Council ran for cover at half time and left the Mayor holding the can.
If Haskett had gone against Council’s unanimous decision and appealed, she would have been accused of exacerbating the already fractious relations on City Council. She would be accused of holding a grudge against HALO and being unable to put this squabble behind her. If Council was now prepared to cave in before the tyranny of a Human Rights Commission which compels politicians to make statements with which they previously disagreed – as if they were nothing more than hydro poles upon which anyone can post any message they like – then who was the Mayor to get in their way?
On the contrary, she stepped aside and got out of everybody’s way for 21 days, letting her record of the last three years stand as her only re-election campaign, and allowing this wishy-washy Council to proclaim away to their hearts’ content. She instructed the City to take the salary it saved from her three weeks’ absence and use it to pay her portion of the fine. She declared that if she was re-elected, she would never give another mayoral proclamation for anyone. She defiantly announced: “I stand on my right as a Canadian to freedom of expression – and that means choosing what I say and what I will not say. I will not bow to the ruling of the Commission and I am willing to bear any consequences of that.”
It looked like political suicide. She took out one newspaper ad, telling why she was stepping aside for three weeks and urging voters to get to know all the other candidates. And with that she completely disappeared from public view until election day.
The media drubbing which Haskett endured in absentia was harsh indeed. No one on staff at The London Free Press had written a good word about Haskett all fall. If it weren’t for two freelancers – myself and Rory Leishman – the only pro-Haskett pieces published during the election campaign would’ve been Letters to the Editor – of which there was a veritable flood.
The Friday before the election, more than a hundred ex-politicians, left-leaning clergy, gay rights activists, business leaders, and one military officer in full uniform came forward to hold an anti-Haskett rally outside of City Hall. (As advance voting was then going on inside City Hall, this assembly was in violation of polling bylaws.) Calling themselves ‘People Against Principled Bigotry, they dropped their unwieldy moniker the next day; perhaps because of the rejoinder which the name all but begged: “I guess you prefer good, old-fashioned unprincipled bigotry?”
The final Free Press headline before election day claimed: “Battle raging for mayor’s chair,” and the accompanying article claimed that the race between Haskett and Grant Hopcroft was now too close to call. The front page picture was of Hopcroft addressing that anti-Haskett rally; behind him a placard which read: “A Tisket, a tasket, goodbye Dianne Haskett.”
From the moment the first returns came in on election night, it was clear that Haskett had won decisively. The final tally, representing 43% turnout (the highest in 20 years), was 61,908 for Haskett; 30,207 for Hopcroft. Mike Mitchell introduced the Mayor to a rapturous crowd at the Hellenic Centre, saying: “The media never have figured it out. But the voters of London sure did.” The live election coverage on Channel 10 and Cablecast was sublimely awkward. All the pundits and commentators – mostly Free Press writers and ex-politicians – were visibly depressed and shaken. How could they have called it so uniformly, completely and spectacularly wrong?
Like Dianne Haskett, Matt Brown knows what it is to find yourself the subject of mockery and contempt. And also like Haskett, he turned to his faith to help him through that trial. As he said in a public statement at the time his infidelity scandal was crashing all around him, “I love my wife, and we are working through our private issues together, with the help of marriage counselling and the minister of our Church, who has been a true friend to us.”
Surely the fact that every London Mayor and City Council since 2000 has acquiesced to the requests of the LGBTQ community for proclamations and civic approval, is sufficient to assuage the hurt feelings of two decades ago. I find it curious that a mere 18 months after his own ordeal as a social pariah, this fellow, professed Christian has so signally failed to honour Dianne Haskett’s courageous and prayer-filled resolve to not have words put into her mouth; has shown such smug disregard for her principled stand, and has attempted to erase her example by in any way attaching this phoney apology to her good name.