Editor’s Note: Interim editor Paul Tuns interviewed Family Coalition Party leader Phil Lees by email on Dec. 17.
The Interim: Tell us a little bit about your background, including your leadership of the Hamilton-Wentworth Family Action Council?
Phil Lees: As an educator for more than 30 years I worked as a teacher, teacher consultant and curriculum designer, at all levels from elementary to post-secondary. My experience also includes two years at the Ontario Ministry of Education. During this time I became concerned over the radical change in values being encouraged by the teachers union and embraced by the education system. Further, I was very concerned by the lack of response of the parents to the ‘imposed’ changes in values.
As a young parent, when placing my children in school, I also fell into the default decision of sending my children to the system that I had attended – the reality of the change in the system had not yet hit me. However, in 1995, my oldest child, Jennifer, was in Grade 5, and my wife Ruth and I became very concerned when our daughter came home from school expressing concern that she was very uncomfortable with what she had been exposed to in health class. We decided to investigate and found that the video presented, “Head Full of Questions,” included cartoon depictions of the complete sex act between a heterosexual couple, Fred and Anna, who met in college, and fell in love. Further, the video introduced the students to homosexuality.
Our concerns were focused on the appropriateness of such content and we began asking questions. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the video had been used for more than six years without one expression of concern. How could this be? It was obvious that the students were so uncomfortable with the content that they could not even discuss it with their parents.
The public health department actually told me that I must be some right-wing radical. I responded to them with, “I need to find out.” The next step was a first effort organizing parents. A few concerned parents set up a booth at the local fall fair, inviting parents to a private viewing of the video. After the viewing , parents were given the names, and phone numbers of all school board trustees, and the phone lines melted down. After this, I was asked to make a presentation at the next school board meeting.
At the meeting, the board room and the outer hall was filled with concerned parents. The board decided to put a red flag on the video. To use it a teacher would require ‘signed permission’ of each parent in the classroom – effectively preventing the video from being used again.
During this time we joined forces with a number of people from different churches and formed an organization called the Hamilton-Wentworth Family Action Council. The group found out the sex ed curriculum in Hamilton was being driven by Planned Parenthood. PP was providing curriculum materials to public health and to the school board. Then all teen pregnancies identified by the school and public health were being referred to PP for abortion referrals – talk about the fox controlling the hen house.
The Hamilton-Wentworth Family Action Council sought to present to the Regional Health and Social Services Committee – the group responsible for public health in the city. At the presentation it was communicated that all crisis teen pregnancies referred to PP, by Hamilton Public Health, ended in abortion referrals and that PP provided no other counselling or support for teens in crisis. In the end, we asked, “Is this balanced counselling?” The services of PP were compared to Birthright – our local pro-life crisis pregnancy centre. The decision of Regional Council was to reduce PP municipal funding by 70 per cent (they were receiving $375 000 in local funding at the time) and ban them from being present in the local schools. Within a few months, Planned Parenthood Hamilton closed their doors. It was also decided that crisis teen pregnancies would be referred to Birthright, rather than PP.
Another significant result of this presentation was the mandate that Public Health establish a Sexual Health Advisory Committee of which the Hamilton-Wentworth Family Council must be a member of the immediate executive. HWFAC held three seats on this important committee, and found three very convincing ladies to fill the seats – Lynne Scime, Cleda Yachetti, and school board trustee Eleanor Johnstone. Over time these three ladies provided the evidence to cause public health Hamilton to change their approach to sexual health education from “If teens to choose to be sexually active then we need to help them to be safe” to “Public Health’s goal must be to delay sexual activity in teens.”
HWFAC has been at the centre of social justice activities since.
TI: How did you become an FCP candidate in 1999?
PL: The building of the HWFAC coalition brought in Lynne Scime, president of the FCP. It was at her encouragement that I chose to run in the 1999 election.
TI: You didn’t seek out the FCP leadership ten years later, you were asked to run. Can you describe how you became leader?
PL: In the spring of 2009, the FCP executive chose to have a leadership review with a leadership convention in October. At the request of a number of long-term members, including past-leader Don Pennell, I was asked to consider the leadership. This was an honour, but I was concerned about whether I had the political experience to take on the task. When I asked, “why me?” I was told they wanted me to take my experience with building coalitions and advocacy groups in Hamilton to help to rebuild that party.
To that I expressed concern that in the past the Family Coalition Party seemed to only be publicly active a few months before an election when the leader would be working hard to find names to post so that the FCP name was present on the ballot, then a few weeks after the election, the sidewalks would roll up and FCP seemed to disappear from public presence. In all fairness this is even consistent with the riding associations of the other large parties, but if FCP is to become an influence for the principles it holds, the party would need to work with the organizations that share our principles to create effective campaigns to advocate for our principles between elections. Much to my surprise the strategy was unanimously supported at the leadership convention.
TI: You are leading a massive undertaking in renewing the FCP. Can you explain your vision and describe the process of reinvigorating the FCP?
PL: The vision is an Ontario that does not discriminate against traditional principled people. If government policies recognize the principles that we hold, more people will choose our principles. Unfortunately, in every area of governance, government policies disadvantage and discourage traditional principled people from living by their principles. One specific example of this is the provincial child care tax credit. After a maternity leave the government policy basically says, “You go back to work and we will provide a tax credit that will help to offset the costs of daycare.” This policy basically tells all families to go back to work and maximize the taxes the province collects so that your child can be raised by the state. A non-discriminatory policy would recognize the value of the various decisions families make in this situation. A non-discriminatory policy would state, “If the best decision you can make for your family is for both parents to work, then you will receive a daycare tax credit to help you find the best daycare possible. If the best decision is for one spouse to stay home to nurture the child(ren), the government acknowledges the value of this decision and the family will receive the same value tax credit.”
Achieving this vision requires a multi-faceted, long term approach including a ‘business plan’ for rebuilding the party and the strategies for developing interest and proving your worth to the voters.
In short, the FCP does have a long term plan to rebuild that party which was first introduced in 2007. After I became leader we actively began implementing the plan and have gone through the re-branding process and made commitments that to improved efficiencies — hired a communications director and moved into a central office. The next step includes reorganizing regional districts.
As already mentioned, the FCP will work with like-minded organizations to advocate for the principles of life, family, and freedom between elections. Many of our provincial government policies discriminate against traditional principled families and we need inform and motivate people to respond so that change will happen.
A most recent example of this discrimination is the Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Strategy, that will lead to instruction in publicly funded schools that contradicts the principles of traditional families. The FCP has partnered with the Hamilton PEACE Project (Public for Alternative Community Education) and are travelling the province helping communities to establish PEACE organizations that will inform families about this policy that leads to conflicting curriculum, and provides tools families can use to minimize the impact on the values of their children.
The education issue is only one issue. Families are also being discriminated against through unfair taxation that does not recognize the importance of income splitting. Further the provincial child care tax credit discriminates against families that choose to have one spouse stay home to raise and nurture their children. FCP is interested in working with members of our coalition to create a campaign that would advocate for policy changes.
We must reach out to all faiths and culture groups. Almost all faith groups and immigrant cultures share our life and family principles. If we are to rebuild the coalition we need to reach out to all cultures and faith groups in this province.
As a political party, the FCP has the advantage of using the electoral process to influence for policies that recognize these principles. This influence can happen as a result of getting someone elected to the legislature who can then work from the inside. Influence can also happen from the outside as a result of being a threat. The Green Party has effectively used this technique. Support for the Green Party has grown and the other political parties have adopted some of the environmentally friendly policies.
We must always keep the vision clearly in mind – a province that does not discriminate against traditional principled people/families. FCP can become a threat. Build a coalition of like-minded groups, advocate for the principles that we hold between elections, increase our vote count and we will become a threat to the ruling parties. The result, the other parties adopt some of the policies that we are advocating for and we all win.
TI: So this is a larger — and longer — process than getting ready for the 2011 election?
PL: Absolutely. The election is actually a bit of an interference right now. I would have preferred to have started this process of rebuilding the party after the last election, allowing us four years to prepare for the next one. It will be the 2015 election that will determine our success.
TI: But the next provincial election is just 10 months away. How is the FCP preparing for the next election?
PL: We are shifting our resources and efforts from advocacy work – the focus of the past year – to preparing for the election. We are dialoguing with our coalition partners to develop effective platform positions and working to establish riding associations that will select candidates for the election.
TI: What will be the key issues in the 2011 election from the FCP perspective?
PL: The actual platform statements are being worked out as we speak and should be ready late January, 2011.
I can confidently state that the issues will focus on our principles. We will advocate for the right to life through a platform statement that encourages provincial government policy that recognizes the value of life.
In the area of education, the platform will take steps to advocate for parental choice in the education of their child – whether that be the secular public system, the Catholic system, private schools, or home schooling. Parents are in the position to make the best choices for their child. Parents should have the right to have their children educated in an environment that is consistent with the values of the home. At the very least, they must have the right to have their child exempted from curriculum that is contradictory to the values taught at home.
Bank managers are telling me that the recent increases experienced through the HST and utility costs have led to a large increase in the number of families seeking to re-structure their mortgage. Our platform will advocate for reducing the kind of taxation that disadvantages families. This could be in the form of income splitting for provincial tax purposes, reducing the HST to 10 percent, and exempting utilities (electricity and natural gas, and gasoline) from HST.
Small steps in any of these areas can have great results. We learned this in Hamilton more than 15 years ago when we reported to Regional Health and Social Services that Planned Parenthood was not providing balanced counselling. That led to Planned Parenthood losing their funding and their doors closing, and public health beginning to refer teen crisis pregnancies to Birthright. We may not have stopped abortion, but many more girls and women are accessing counselling that respects the rights of the unborn to life.
TI: In the past the FCP has run “paper candidates.” How do you feel about running little more than names on ballots?
PL: The paper candidate strategy was seen as a way of getting the FCP name out to the public, however, when a candidate does not respond to the press or attend all-candidate meetings that hurts our credibility.
FCP members would like to have a pro-life name on the ballot and the best way to achieve this is through the Constituency Association process. Through this process local members of the FCP decide on the candidate who embraces the principles of the FCP and they feel they can support. Then the central office of the party must provide candidate training seminars. It is important for the credibility of the party that the candidate become familiar with the platform message and learn some tips about dealing with the press and presenting at all-candidate meetings. Following this process provides credibility for the candidate and the party.
To operate with credibility we need people who share principles to help get a constituency association started in their community. It is not hard, and FCP central office encourages all readers to consider this important first step.
TI: Where do you hope the FCP will be in five or ten years?
PL: More people in Ontario are discouraged by the Liberal and Conservative ways of managing government. If we carefully follow the four year plan, build our coalition network, and effectively advocate for the principles people find important, FCP will become a traditional principled electoral force in Ontario.