Saturday, October 31, 1998

Dave Margoshes
Special to the Sun

p. B1.

Strippers, gay pride face Saskatchewan's forces of prudery

During October the moral crusaders have won one fight and lost another, but the fight will continue

REGINA — It's been a mixed month for the forces of prudery in Saskatchewan, with the moral crusaders winning one fight — for the moment — and losing another.

October opened with a refusal by the Supreme Court of Canada to hear a challenge to a provincial rule that keeps strippers out of bars, leaving Saskatchewan as the last bastion in Canada of such enforced public modesty.

Then, later in the month, Regina's city council, by just a one-vote margin, threw out a long-standing restriction against civic proclamations for "religious, sexual or political" organizations or events. It was a tremendous victory for the city's homosexual community, which had sought a proclamation for a "gay pride week" and a defeat for conservative elements in the city.

Strippers, gay pride… hey this is 1998 — what's the big deal? In cities like Vancouver and Calgary, where strippers have plied their trade since the 1970s and where homosexual pride is long since out of the closet, these battles must seem remarkably anachronistic and Saskatchewan distinctively quaint.

University of Saskatchewan law professor Howard McConnell points to the "dichotomy of progressive social policies and Mrs. Grundyism in matters relating to sex" that characterizes the dominant New Democratic Party in the province, which was so influenced by the concept of the social gospel it its early days. This allows otherwise progressive people to hold "views on morality and sex which could only be described as repressive."

Nils Clausson, the laid-back spokesman for Regina's homosexual community who was at the forefront of the proclamation battle agrees.

Saskatchewan, he says, "is kind of schizophrenic. We're politically progressive, especially on issues that require working together against a common enemy, be it the eastern bastards or the harsh climate, but we've also created a sort of monolithic culture that doesn't really welcome or even tolerate diversity."

The battle over the gay parade proclamation in Regina is a dandy metaphor for that discomfort with diversity.

For some members of city council, Clausson believes, the proclamation issue "became a sort of litmus test for what it takes to be a moral person, for what's right and what's wrong." For some of the people who lined up against a proclamation for gay pride, he says, "it's a religous issue… for others, it's not so much religious as a conviction that there's a right and a wrong. Issues like homosexuality, abortion and capital punishment are touchstones."

p. B3.

Regina councillors represent older values

Clausson also believes some members of council "just don't want to have to deal with anything controversial, they just want them to go away."

These council members represent an older, conservative constituency "that wants to feel that the society they see reflects their values. They still cling to the thought that homosexuality is wrong, that blacks should ride at the back of the bus, that Indians should stay on the reserve… Unfortunately for these people, the world has become much more pluralistic."

Says McConnell: "We're not the Mississippi of Canada but, in our intellectual and moral insularity we're similar to the U.S. South."

The law professor thinks there may be a trade-off in the government's insistence on keeping strippers at bay. The NDP has held its nose on gambling, another traditional moral issue, because of the strong financial incentive and, as a sop to its rural constituency, is holding the line on strippers, he suggests.

"You might call it institutional hypocrisy. Money certainly alters the moral perception."

Kevin Dwyer, owner of Showgirls, the Saskatoon bar that's leading the fight for titillation along with imbibing, is equally blunt. He blames the resistance to racy entertainment on a "small bunch of the old guard in power who are still trying to make the moral decisions for the majority."

But for Peter Glendinning, vice president of licensing with the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gambling Authority, denies the government's position has anything to do with morals. He insists "it's a matter related to safety, to the prudent and socially responsible consumption of alcohol."

This is the same government agency that got egg on its face a few years ago when it ordered Spandex-clad aerobics instructors out of a fitness program at a beer garden at the annual Buffalo Days exhibition in Regina.

The "long standing" regulation was written to prevent an "unnecessary volatile mix" caused by sex in the barroom, Glendinning said. The government is sticking to its guns on the regulation, because, aside from some obvious special interests — bar owners and some of their customers — "there hasn't been perceived to be any demand for a change."

Regina's proclamation battle began in 1989 when the city's homosexual community planned its first gay pride week and parade. Then, proclamations were issued by council and the request for one sailed through easily. After a storm of protest, council tried but failed to rescend the proclamation.

The following year, city hall changed the way it issues proclamations, putting the power solely in the hands of the mayor but barring from consideration organizations that dealt with religious, sexual or politically sensitive issues. The bylaw change was clearly aimed at the homosexual community, but also effected groups on both sides of the abortion issue among others.

In 1993, the New Democrats delivered on a campaign promise and amended the Human Rights Code to include sexual preference — one moral area where they've been consistently progressive. But it was only this year that a request for a proclamation was again made, bringing the issue back.

Under the bylaw, the mayor had no choice but to say no to a gay pride proclamation; Clausson and his friends had every intention of appealing to the Human Rights Commission; and the city solicitor's advice was that they'd win.

An amendment to the bylaw seemed inevitable. But at a couple of meetings earlier in the fall, there was so much opposition from conservative religious groups and individuals, some of the councillors got cold feet.

In a throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater move, they came up with a plan to repeal the proclamation bylaw altogether.

After two weeks to cool down, and a flood of letters from charitable and other nonprofit groups that depend on the proclamations to get their mesages out, the scrap-the-bylaw plan was defeated, and an amendment passed to bring the rules into accordance with the human rights code.

Mayor Doug Archer argued that at the most there would be two or three controversial proclamations a year — not nearly enough to sacrifice the benefits.

Clausson says Regina is probably the lats major Canadian city to drop restrictions on civic proclamation policies.

At least one other group that's been barred from the proclamations will be lining up for one: Ruby Jeffers with the Regina Pro-Life Association said her antiabortion group would be seeking a proclamation for Respect for Life Week in the spring.

Jeffers said her group was "sort of torn" by council's decision. "We hate to see everybody and his uncle get acclaimed, but we're pleased for ourselves. It's something that we wanted to do, but our hands were tied."

Meanwhile, the strippers have just begun to fight.

The supreme court refusal to hear an appeal by bar owners against the ban on mixing booze and skin effectively maintained the status quo for decades until almost two years ago. That was when a Court of Queen's Bench judge, citing the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, knocked the ban down, opening the door to strippers in bars.

For the bar owners, it was more a matter of money than morals. As one hotel owner put it: "Without peelers I make $200 to $300 a night. With peelers, I can make $2,000 to $3,000."

The spree only lasted a year. Then, early this year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, overturned the lower court ruling on a technicality: it's only the strippers whose constitutional rights were infringed, not their employers. The Supreme Court of Canada's refusal to hear the case this month indicates it agrees.

Showgirls is fighting on. The liquor authority has suspended the bar's licence twice for refusing to put clothes back on its women entertainers in the months since the appeal court dropped the curtain.

Now operating under the protection of an injunction, the bar's lawyer, Ron Dumonceaux, filed papers for a new challenge a week after the supreme court ruling. He's pinning his hopes on a judge agreeing that the women's rights are being curtailed.

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Created: November 7, 1998
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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