The leaders of the ad hoc protest group, Intolerance Free Weyburn, are happy with the dialogue that has been opened in Weyburn, and were disappointed but not surprised that the speech by controversial American speaker Peter LaBarbera was pretty much what they expected.
Just under 200 people attended the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association's annual conference, held at McKenna Hall on Friday and Saturday, with four keynote speakers, said organizer John Sidloski.
For his part, LaBarbera was unrepentant in presenting his message to the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association's annual conference in Weyburn; he and pro-life activist Bill Whatcott went on to be arrested for trespassing on Monday when they refused to leave the grounds of the University of Regina where they were protesting.
"What we set out to accomplish, we had accomplished in the first week. Sure, we had the petition, but what we wanted was to raise awareness and get our community involved in a real social issue," said Chris Brookes, one of the leaders of Intolerance Free Weyburn, along with his wife Bailey.
He noted he had a friend who used to live in Weyburn tell him that, before this weekend, he felt uncomfortable about coming back to the city, but now he knows there are people that he can hang out with, said Chris.
The group had initially set up an on-line petition to ask the Sask. Pro-Life Association to remove LaBarbera from the list of speakers for the annual conference, and there were also calls made to the government to have him stopped at the border to prevent him from entering Canada. The lobby effort nearly worked, as LaBarbera was initially denied entry to the country, but he then won an appeal on Friday to be allowed entrance to Canada.
For Brookes' part, he said their group really didn't care that he was allowed in, and that the support for the group has "been overwhelmingly positive. We appreciate every bit of support we got."
For his part in organizing the conference, Sidloski said, "It's always a good dialogue, and I think we got it. I talked to the people across the street (the protesters), and think of them as my own sons and daughters. They came to me and said they had nothing against us, and it was always very positive."
He noted a number of people who were initially going to attend the conference cancelled due to the controversy surrounding it, but then others stepped up and helped fill the hall, including a number of members from Intolerance Free Weyburn. Chris and Bailey Brookes attended most of the speakers sessions, and other members of the group attended part of the time.
"It ended up even better than what I would've predicted a month ago, and there was a time when I was very concerned about the outcome, because we weren't talking to each other," said Sidloski. "I think this was a good experience for the city."
Throughout the two-day conference, the Weyburn Police Service had a visible presence in front of McKenna Hall, and the protesters maintained their distance, holding their protest across the street from hall's main entrance.
Inspector Russ Chartrand said of the event, "They're difficult to plan for; however, this was non-eventful."
At one point late Friday afternoon, activist Whatcott put out some of his graphic posters showing aborted babies, and conference organizers asked him to take them down as they were asked not to protest in front of McKenna. For a time on Saturday morning, Whatcott held up hand-drawn signs as he stood across the street from McKenna.
The protesters, meanwhile, were not impressed, as there were children with the protest group across the street, but noted they had no problem with the pro-life aspect of the conference itself.
"We're very open-minded towards the rest of the conference. That's never been an issue; that's why we took such exception to the graphic posters out there.
They were so unnecessary, and they didn't have permission to post those. It may not have been okayed, but it still represented the conference, whether they wanted it to or not," said Chris Brookes.
"Yeah, we're not pro-abortion, we're pro-love, you know, and pro-equality," added his wife Bailey.
She also pointed out they had a lot of support for their position from people at the conference, adding, "They understood what we're really all about."
In making opening remarks for the day Saturday, emcee for the conference, David Sidloski, said of the protesters, "I just really raise Chris up as a true leader in our community, and when I think of the prayer that the church be built up in Weyburn, I really see the church is really being built in Weyburn."
After hearing LaBarbera speak Saturday morning, the Brookes expressed their disappointment in what they heard.
"He spent a lot of his time defending himself. Maybe 40 per cent of his time he's going, 'these guys are against me and here's why'," added Bailey. "I feel like my worst fears were basically come true. He candy-coated thing, and he didn't speak out hatefulness directly, but you know, he threw out so many labels and people's names. He used Christianity to back himself, and I find that just disgusting, I really do. It's not the Christian message."
In a scrum with reporters, LaBarbera said, "It was a great crowd. We're trying to show the issues of pro-life and defending marriage against the homosexual agenda are related. People who fought against same-sex marriage are fighting the same issues that pro-lifers faced."
Asked about being accused of bringing a hate message here, LaBarbera said the protesters are trying to redefine the very term "hate".
"What our message is, it's okay to stand up for marriage between one man and one woman, to stand up for healthy identities. It's okay to oppose homosexual behaviour, to oppose gay activism, and that's just my moral belief. The problem is the left, like this group Intolerance Free Weyburn, is defining hate by ideology, and therefore if you hold a position and dare to defend that position in public, you're by definition a hater. That's a new definition of hate. They also have a new definition of tolerance. Tolerance used to be me and you could disagree but we could have a civil discussion so I would like us to return to the old definition of tolerance, which is me and the leader of this group could sit down have a discussion. I'm not going to try and ban him from speaking; he shouldn't try to ban me."
On the effort to ban him from entering Canada, Chris Brookes said, "I find it funny a small group from a small town, in a small time-frame, who wasn't even trying to prevent him from coming into our country, almost got him kicked out of the country. That wasn't even our goal, and we still almost did it. I think that speaks volumes; what if that had been our goal? What if we had more time?"
As far as debating LaBarbera, he said if he had had time and resources to prepare for such a debate, he probably would take part in it. "I'd have to give that a lot more thought and preparation. I'm not ruling it out, and I'm not backing down from it either."
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