It's a sign of how prominent Rev. Brent Hawkes has been in the fight for gay rights in Canada that Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and future prime minister Justin Trudeau all sent him personal video messages for his 65th birthday last June.

Now Hawkes is facing charges of indecent assault and gross indecency in connection with what police in Nova Scotia describe as allegations from one complainant over events that date back 40 years. 

One of the most prominent figures standing by Hawkes is Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario and former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

"He's an enormously hard-working, decent and inspirational man," Rae said Tuesday in an interview with CBC News. "He's shown more courage and more guts on difficult issues in public life than anybody that I know." 

"I have no idea what happened or what didn't happen and I'm not going to pre-judge that," Rae said. "I have no intention of walking away from my friendship with him." 

Hawkes is senior pastor of Toronto's Metropolitan Community Church, where he presided over Canada's first same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2001.

"The outpouring of support for Brent has been absolutely unbelievable, by all the congregation," said the chair of the church board, Anne Brayley.

"We have the highest regard for Brent. He's a man of high integrity, he's been a cherished and respected leader of our church for 38 years, and he has our full support." 

She said Hawkes remains in his position as senior pastor and she expects he will lead the service at the church next Sunday.

Charges date from the '70s

Nova Scotia RCMP are giving few details about the circumstances that led to the charges against Hawkes. 

"It's a historical sexual assault investigation from the 1970s," Const. Mark Skinner told CBC News. "At this time we only have one [alleged] victim that has come forward

"I am innocent of these allegations," Hawkes said in a statement. "The purported events simply did not take place." 

The case is next due in court in April. 

Hawkes is a member of the Order of Canada and officiated at the state funeral of the late NDP leader Jack Layton. 

His 65th birthday party last June was a fundraising event for the church. Rae was one of the guest speakers, and video messages came from top Canadian politicians.  

"You have lived the belief that Christianity is rooted in love and acceptance and you remind us that gay rights are human rights," said Wynne in her birthday message to Hawkes. 

 

"Happy birthday, my friend," said Trudeau in his message to Hawkes. "I'm very happy to add my voice to the chorus of voices celebrating you today." 

Comedian Rick Mercer contributed a message as well. "The list of your life's accomplishments is simply staggering," he said. "You are a member of my personal gay hall of fame."