VICTORIA — The fall session of the B.C. legislature convened Tuesday with much anticipation about the role that would be chosen by B.C. Conservative John Rustad in his first turn as a leader of the fourth party in the house.
The answer was not long in coming, unfolding as it did with Rustad’s first question, targeting the sexual orientation and gender identity policy in provincial schools.
Would the New Democrats “admit that SOGI has been divisive, an assault on parents’ rights and a distraction on student education?”
He pitched the question to Education Minister Rachna Singh. David Eby, exercising his prerogative as premier, responded.
“I welcome the member as the leader of his new party, but I have got to say, this is not an auspicious start,” Eby began. “To come in to this place, to use the authority of his office, to find a small group of kids in our province to leverage all of that, to make them feel less safe at school, less safe in our community, to feed the fires of division in our province and bring the culture war — it is not welcome.”
After all, Eby observed, Rustad was part of the B.C. Liberal government that added SOGI to school policies.
“It is outrageous that he would stand here and do this,” the premier continued. “He sees political advantage in picking on kids and families and teachers and schools who are just trying to do their best for kids that are at the risk of suicide.”
He let that sink in.
Then closed with “shame on him — choose another question.”
It was a blistering and incisive response from the leader of a party whose supporters have been celebrating the emergence of the B.C. Conservatives because of the threat it poses to support for B.C. United.
But Eby sees more of a mixed blessing. He faults Rustad and his party for importing the divisive themes of the U.S. culture wars to B.C.
What happened next took the drama to another level.
The New Democrats, of course, applauded their leader. But the B.C. United joined in, led by MLAs Elenore Sturko and Karin Kirkpatrick.
The New Democrats then escalated the response by getting to their feet and continuing the applause.
B.C. United (excepting MLAs Ellis Ross, Ben Stewart and Tom Shypitka) joined that display as well, creating the rare spectacle of the Opposition serving up a standing ovation for a partisan speech by the premier.
Rustad didn’t back down.
“This isn’t about attacking a particular group of people,” he fired back during question period. “But now we have kids that are running home from school and going to the bathroom because they don’t feel safe in school and that is this government’s fault.”
Outside the house he vowed, “I will not be intimidated.”
As for B.C. United applauding Eby, Rustad had a ready answer for that as well: “The other three parties in the house are on the left. Three lefts don’t make a right.”
Rustad had telegraphed where he would be heading with a social media posting about residential schools on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
“Today, we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it’s better at raising children than parents,” wrote Rustad on his Twitter account.” I will always stand with parents.”
Inevitably, the posting recalled how Rustad had been siding with parental rights protesters over SOGI.
B.C. United MLA Sturko responded to Rustad with a call for him to apologize “for his misappropriation of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
That, in turn, drew a response from MLA Bruce Banman, whose defection from B.C. United last month gave the Conservatives the two MLAs necessary for official status in the legislature.
“This sort of hypersensitive, woke, far-left cancel culture,” he fumed. “Waiting to pounce and demand apologies over the slightest oversight of speech and tone is why I and others are leaving B.C. United in droves,
“Elenore your party is done — and everyone knows it,“ wrote Banman.
Sturko then demonstrated she was not the type to be intimidated either.
“As a member of the LGBT community, I know first-hand the struggle for equality and dignity faced by LGBT people,” she replied. “It is not ‘cancel culture’ to ask for an apology from a public figure who used degrading language and misappropriation of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.”
The weekend exchange on social media, like the one in the house Tuesday, confirmed for Rustad that he and the Conservatives have no competition for the right-of-centre views on social issues.
He’s an experienced politician, choosing provocative issues to distinguish himself from the other parties and thereby generate attention, media coverage and support.
Rustad served under two B.C. Liberal premiers, Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark. They were mostly economic conservatives who gave less voice to social conservatives.
Social Conservatives have not had a party leader consistently advocating their views in the legislature since Bill Vander Zalm resigned from the premier’s office more than three decades ago.
Now they have John Rustad, making the most of the opportunity.
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