Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Same-Sex Marriage in Canada: Parliament Votes

Stephen Harper, Canadian Alliance leader

:: It's not everyday that a politican actually admits he's going to tie up the House of Commons for a stunt; but that's what Stephen Harper, plucky leader of the Official Opposition in Ottawa is doing today. Allison Dunfield, reporting for the Globe and Mail, notes Harper "said Tuesday's motion, which has no real weight but is meant to embarrass the Liberal Party, is a chance for the government to 'come clean.'" The Canadian Alliance Leader rose in the House of Commons this morning to introduce the highly anticipated motion, which says that a marriage should be a union between one man and one woman; Parliament will vote around 5:30 pm today.

And a stunt it is. A motion of this sort carries the same weight as a motion asking Israel to be nice to Palestinians. It's a sad commentary on the ongoing devaluation of public debate that "leaders" such as Harper can get away with remarks like: "Changing the traditional definition of marriage to allow homosexual unions would 'endanger actual rights that are enshrined in our tradition'". Harper also neglects to mention that the reason gay marriage has become a reality in Canada is because we have values enshrined in our constitution and in particular in the 1982 "Charter of Rights and Freedoms".

Jean Chretien, Prime Minister of Canada

:: The reality, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien has pointed out repeatedly over the course of the summer, is that "Society evolves. It changes over time", even though as recently as 1999 a vote in the House of Commons resoundingly supported the notion of "one man and one woman" for a definition of marriage (Canada having caught a sneeze or two from America's appalling "Defense of Marriage Act" nonsense). The good news is that Parliament is only allowed to pass laws that are, well, legal. The whole point of having a constitution is to ensure that "rogue politicians" don't seize power and enact legislation based on personal whim or bias that is fundamentally against national values. So no matter how hard you try, you can't become elected Prime Minister and pass laws which, to take a topic at random, require Catholic priests to marry same-sex partners: that goes against the Charter's freedom of religion rights. Similarly, you can't enact laws which create discrimination against specific identifiable groups, including homosexuals, because you've decided it requires heterosexuality, or blond hair and blue eyes, to formalise your union in the identical way as everyone else.

The courts have already ruled on this issue in Ontario and British Columbia and have granted same-sex marriage rights to the residents there (actually to visitors, too) with the impact that all provincial government programs must recognize same-sex marriages as equivalent to opposite sex marriages (that's because they are now the same). That already covers 55% of Canadians. A court decision is pending in Quebec which is almost certain to concur, bringing the total to around 75% of the population. The federal Parliament is expected to update its laws in late 2004 but in the meantime even the Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has urged his provincial counterparts to act as if the federal definition has been amended.

It might be possible to enable a constitutional amendment in Canada similar to the US Defense of Marriage Act but it is a virtual no-go strategy. So the worst-case scenario will be that Parliament doesn't act to change the federal law until, eventually, the Supreme Court hears a case forcing it to, and similar provincial legislatures do the same. It's a strategy which is messy and long-winded and accomplishes nothing, but this is the world Stephen Harper wants us to embrace. As I started out saying, he devalues the public debate.

Flash update!

The federal government's plan to legalize gay marriage barely passed a critical first test today as MPs narrowly voted down a Canadian Alliance motion calling on Parliament to preserve the traditional definition of marriage.

At about 6 pm, the House of Commons voted 137-132 against the Alliance motion to retain marriage as the exclusive domain of heterosexuals.

The narrow victory gives the government the moral clout to go ahead with its plan to redefine marriage, but it also highlights the deep divisions in the Liberal party and could mean a rocky ride for the government's plan.

Wayne Steinman and Sal Iacullo on their wedding day at Toronto City Hall, 2003

:: On a related note, I had the pleasure of attending the marriage of Wayne Steinman and Sal Iacullo, at Toronto, at noon on 27 August. They had come up from New York City, with their teenage daughter Hope, to take advantage of the low exchange rate and the new court rulings allowing for same-sex marriages; Rev. G. Malcolm Sinclair of the Metropolitan United Church of Canada did the honours in the Wedding Chapel on the third floor at City Hall on Queen Street. My roommate DJ knew them from an online list and he was asked to be the second official witness (Hope was the first signatory).

Terry and Sandy, Newly Weds in Sudbury, Ontario

Waiting in the waiting room was another happy male-male couple; they tied the knot at 12:30 at the same venue. And, who knew? At 2 pm, in the same venue, pop singer Janis Ian and her beau (?) Patricia Snyder also made their relationship a matter of equal legality in Ontario -- though not in their homeland (security issues?). Just a few days earlier, in Victoria, BC, my online friends Alan and Steve flew up from California and got married there. And earlier in the same month, Terry and Sandy (see pic this paragraph), who met online about three years ago and live in Sudbury, Ontario, sent me pics from their recent wedding (including the kilt shot!).

Remind me again ... how does extending marriage to same-sex partners adversely affect opposite-sex marriage partners?

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