Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton is defending himself against accusations of homophobia after deriding leadership hopeful Christine Elliott for trying to build a "Little Pink Tent."
In an e-mail to party members on Saturday evening, Mr. McNaughton exhorted PC faithful to vote for Ms. Elliott's rival, Barrie MP Patrick Brown. The missive, titled "Christine Elliott Trudeau???", said only Mr. Brown could be trusted to stand up to the Liberal government's plan to implement a new sex-education curriculum, which includes teaching children about sexual orientations and identities.
Mr. McNaughton, who dropped out of the leadership race last month to support Mr. Brown, said Ms. Elliott is too moderate and would exclude social conservatives from the party. He mocked her campaign promise to build a "big blue tent."
"For her part, incredibly, Christine Elliott makes it clear that her so-called 'Big Blue Tent' includes everyone EXCEPT those who oppose the Wynne sex-ed agenda!" he wrote. "Ms. Elliott should rename her tent the 'Little Red Tent,' or 'Little Pink Tent.' There is nothing 'Big' or 'Blue' about it."
Party members voted on Sunday, and a second round of voting is on Thursday; the new leader will be announced on Saturday.
A chorus of PC party members, including supporters of both Ms. Elliott and Mr. Brown, swiftly criticized the message as possibly homophobic and unnecessarily nasty. A group of Conservative MPPs wore pink shirts, scarves and ties to Question Period on Monday morning to protest against Mr. McNaughton's comments.
Mr. McNaughton did not attend Question Period. At his Queen's Park office, he said the remarks were not meant to be homophobic.
"I know lots of people close to my family who choose to love whoever they choose to love, and I have no issues with that," he said.
Asked if he had any problem with LGBT rights, he said: "Never, never. And anybody who knows me knows that's not me."
Mr. McNaughton said "little pink" was a reference to his contention Ms. Elliott would turn the PCs into "a second Liberal Party" by excluding social conservatives.
Some of Mr. McNaughton's colleagues saw it differently.
"I've spent a great deal of time in my career talking about pink-shirt day, talking about anti-bullying, talking about acceptance. [The pink tent comment] has a negative connotation, the way it was put out there, and I think that it's important for many members of our caucus to send a message that we're an accepting party, we're tolerant and those views don't reflect us," said MPP Lisa McLeod, who is supporting Ms. Elliott and sported a pink scarf in the legislature.
She also called for the Tories to show better caucus solidarity than to attack one another publicly: "Our party needs to move on. We are legitimate government in waiting and we have to start acting like it."
The opposition to the province's sex-ed curriculum has an undeniably homophobic current, with organizers Campaign Life and evangelical leader Charles McVety including anti-LGBT slurs in their statements on the issue.
Mr. McNaughton and Mr. Brown have both staked out positions against the Liberals' curriculum, speaking to rallies against the curriculum at Queen's Park.
Ms. Elliott has played both sides. While she has said she opposes the sex-ed curriculum, she has played down the issue and promised an inclusive Tory party if she wins the leadership. She was not in Question Period on Monday; her spokeswoman, Marie Prentice, declined to comment on Mr. McNaughton's e-mail.
Mr. McNaughton faced accusations of bigotry from the Liberals last February after he said "it's not the Premier of Ontario's job, especially Kathleen Wynne, to tell parents what's age-appropriate for their children."
Ms. Wynne, who is the first openly gay head of government in the English-speaking world, rebuked Mr. McNaughton for the comment during Question Period at the time.
"What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I'm doing? Is it that I'm a woman? Is it that I'm a mother? Is it that I have a master's of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is it that I was the minister of education?" Ms. Wynne thundered. "What is it exactly that the member opposite thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I'm doing? What is that?"
The harshest response to his comments this time, however, came from fellow Tories.
"It's amazing to me just how low @MonteMcNaughton has fallen in the last two months but tonight was the lowest!! #Shameful #Disgrace," MPP Todd Smith said on Twitter.
Former Tory candidate Anthony MacDonald called Mr. McNaughton one of the "youngest old guard" in the party.
"My party and his party, are not the same. One of us is in the wrong place," he wrote.