McKenna Hall will be a busy place both inside and outside this weekend, as the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association is hosting a provincial conference on Friday and Saturday, Apr. 11-12, with a number of speakers lined up for both days.
Opposing one of those speakers, Peter LaBarbera, the group Intolerance Free Weyburn will be holding a Pro-Love Peace Rally and protest outside the hall throughout both days, in addition to collecting signatures to an on-line petition asking that the Pro-Life Association rescind the speaker from the list of presenters.
As of Tuesday morning, the on-line petition had garnered 1,314 signatures, with more being added every day since it went up on Mar. 30.
One of the organizers of the petition and the rally, Bailey Brookes, noted she and her husband Chris first heard of the conference when they received a flyer in their mailbox for it, and at first ignored it, until a friend texted them to bring LaBarbera to their attention.
LaBarbera is the U.S.-based president of the group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, and according to Brookes and her group, LaBarbera "is the founder of a Christian-based extremist group that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center."
The rally will gather at Memorial Park at 2 p.m. on Friday, Apr. 11, and then the group will walk over to McKenna Hall where they plan to have a peaceful presence throughout the convention with singing, dancing and children's activities.
They will meet again at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday prior to the start of the convention at 10 a.m., said Brookes, who added the protest "is family-oriented, and has lots of stuff going on."
Throughout the rally, the group will have colourful wrist bands and T-shirts available for sale, as well as games and activities like face-painting. Any funds raised will go towards Camp fYrefly, said Brookes. (This camp is Canada's only leadership retreat for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender youth; the name is an acronym that stands for "fostering Youth, resiliency, energy, fun, leadership, yeah!")
As of Tuesday, the Camp fYrefly fundraiser and children's activities have evolved into its own event, on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Grace United Church in the Upper Grace Hall. There will be lots of children's activities such as crafts, face-painting, games and dancing.
"Weyburn is a conservative community, and you see that a lot, so I guess it really was a surprise to have this support. We never ever imagined this much community support.
People want a change, they're not all so conservative," said Brookes.
In addition to the online petition (which can be found on Facebook), members of Intolerance Free have been calling federal and provincial politicians to make them aware of the speaker who's coming to Weyburn. The controversy has been talked about as far away as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and as far south as California on the Jason Ellis radio show, known to listeners on SiriusXM satellite radio on channel 41.
Also in response to the concerns raised by Intolerance Free Weyburn, Mayor Debra Button has said she will ask that the banquet assistance grant approved for the conference be rescinded, and the criteria for the grant needs to be reviewed.
"The word is definitely spreading," said Brookes. "This is not the first time that Pro-Life has had speakers talk against homosexuality. We specifically had asked them to explain the link between pro-life and homosexuality. We are definitely concerned with that."
Asked if the rally will still be held if LaBarbera doesn't show up for the conference, Brookes said it will still go ahead.
"We feel Pro-Life should not be doing that; we don't think it's a good idea," said Brookes.
For LaBarbera's part, he takes issue over the attempt to muzzle his rights to free speech, and over the label of "hate-mongering" that Intolerance Free Weyburn is attaching to him.
"We view it as an anti-liberty thing," he said from his home base in Illinois. "To me it's a little frightening that this is going on. I commend the organizers for not backing down in the face of this public bullying."
Asked about the criticism that his speech has nothing to do with the pro-life movement or issue, LaBarbera said his speech topic will be in defence of the natural marriage between a man and wife. "When marriage is threatened, life is threatened," he said, noting the gay lobby in the U.S. is pro abortion-on-demand, which is a threat to natural marriage.
"Who is this group to try and dictate to an organization who can and cannot speak?" he asked. "They don't have the right to define laws or hate for other people. Who are they to dictate who is acceptable and what constitutes hate?"
As to the accusation he espouses hate of gays, he replied, "I don't hate gays. I don't hate people in transgender lifestyles and I don't hate bisexuals."
When told of the rally the group is planning to hold outside McKenna Hall, he said he has no problem with that. "That's their free speech right."
He added he would be open to have a dialogue with the protestors, but said, "Dialogue has to have a certain element of respect, to listen to what the other person has to say. They've crossed the line, and there have been a lot of hateful comments about me."
LaBarbera said some of the people talking about intolerance "are the most intolerant of all."
John Sidloski of Weyburn Pro-Life said the controversy over the speaker has brought a lot of attention to their event they wouldn't have had otherwise. In regard to the city possibly rescinding the banquet assistance grant, he noted many people have responded by offering to cover off the association's expenses for the conference.
"I do hope the speaker can come without being harassed or being interfered with," said Sidloski. "The interest in what we're doing is so enormous, it's coming at us from all sides."
He noted some people who wanted to come to the conference have called him out of concern whether it will be safe to bring children.
Asked about the view of Intolerance Free that LaBarbera is "hate-mongering", Sidloski responded, "I don't believe that for a minute. He doesn't have a reputation for that; he has a reputation as a world-class speaker. I think that's why these people are afraid of him. He's not going to be like (anti-abortion activist) Bill Whatcott who wants to raise hell all the time. He has 20 years of speaking behind him."
Sidloski noted that his Pro-Life newspaper has been dealing with these topics for over 25 years without any problems, and added, "I look forward to what comes out of all this. … I'm interested in what this might do for the city of Weyburn."