Now It’s Up to Parliament

Canadian Prime Minster Paul Martin aims for early 2005 despite some resistance

Informal polling of the Canadian Parliament indicates that members, by a 25-vote plurality, favor legalizing same-sex marriage, said a survey by The Globe and Mail following a decision by the nation’s highest court to give approval to such legislation. A bill is not scheduled to be taken up until late January and a final vote may come as late as spring, a time that opponents have vowed to use to turn up the political heat on the already volatile issue and try to stop it, despite the fact that 85 perent of Canadians already live in provinces where gay people are allowed to marry by judicial order—Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon Territory.

The political developments have been fast and furious since December 14 when the Supreme Court said the government had the right to define marriage, declared the gay marriage bill constitutional, and acknowledged that religious institutions would not be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if they refused to perform same-sex nuptials. The justices also declined to answer the question of whether it would be constitutional to continue to define marriage federally as between a man and a woman, refusing to “do the government’s dirty work,” as one commentator put it.

This court case, heard only two months ago, was a delaying tactic by outgoing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who wanted to get his Liberal Party through the spring elections without having to resolve the gay marriage issue, even though an Ontario court declared such marriages legal in June 2003.

The Liberals are still in power under a new prime minister, Paul Martin, but do not have a majority and are in coalition with the left-leaning Bloc Québécois with 54 members and New Democrats (NDP) with 19, almost all of whose members support same-sex marriage. All but four of the 99 Conservatives will vote against the bill. It is the Liberal caucus that is split.

While Martin is demanding that all 38 of his cabinet ministers support the government’s bill, he is giving a free conscience vote to his 95 backbenchers. One minister, Joe Comuzzi, is saying that he might be willing to give up his post to vote against the bill. But Housing Minister Joe Fontana, of the Labour Party, who voted last fall to limit marriage to heterosexual couples, will vote with Martin. “He is comfortable with the fact that the Supreme Court has agreed this is an issue of human rights and that the government’s legislation will respect freedom of religion,” a Fontana spokesperson told the London Free Press.

The Globe and Mail found “that opponents could not muster more than 141 or 142 members of the 308-seat House of Commons.” The bill needs 155 votes for passage.

The Edmonton Journal wrote, “This is a fight the Conservatives, both federal and Albertan, seem destined to lose.” The recalcitrant provinces can also not use the notwithstanding clause to avoid implementing the federal law. That is only permitted when the courts overturn provincial legislation.

In Alberta, one of the provinces that still ban same-sex marriage, Conservative Premier Ralph Klein is pushing for a national referendum on the issue, an idea supported by Liberal backbencher Pat O’Brien of Ontario but scorned by Martin. The Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, also opposes a referendum, not to mention the leaders of Bloc Québécois and NDP who “argued it is wrong to subject minority rights to a majority vote,” according to the Globe and Mail.

Referenda on gay rights have been common in the U.S. since Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign to overturn Miami’s law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. In many cases, the anti-gay side has prevailed in such votes.

O’Brien told the Canadian Press that he will push Martin to allow a free vote in the cabinet and failing that, to ask him to invoke the notwithstanding clause to “scrap” the pro-gay marriage rulings by courts in six provinces and the Yukon. O’Brien told the Hill Times he is leading a “vigorous” lobbying effort against the bill and has already convinced one MP to change her vote, while acknowledging it is an “uphill fight.”

Alberta’s leaders are already looking for a way to get out of issuing marriage licenses entirely, and insist they will force the federal government to handle the responsibility if same-sex marriages are legalized.

Martin has said that as a Catholic, he has struggled with this issue. But he told the Globe and Mail, “It comes down to equality under the Charter. I do not believe you can have two classes of citizens.”

As Gay City News was going to press, the London Free Press reported that Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said that civil officials cannot be compelled to perform same-sex weddings if it violates their religious beliefs. He didn’t explain how Ottawa will ensure homosexuals can marry if officials, such as justices of the peace, refuse to co-operate,” according to the newspaper. “But he said Ottawa will work with the provinces to sort things out.”

Polls by Canadian Television and the Globe and Mail show Canadian support for some form of legal recognition of gay relationships at 71 percent, ten percent more than was found among U.S. citizens polled this November. Thirty-nine percent of Canadians want marriage completely opened to gay couples and another 32 percent say that “same-sex marriage should be allowed to exist in civil law, but not have the same weight as a conventional marriage.” Another poll taken in October by Ipsos-Reid found 54 percent in favor of same-sex marriage with 43 percent opposed, figures that have held fairly steady since 1999.

The religious right in Canada, while not nearly as powerful as in America, is in high gear to defeat the bill. Jim Hughes, president of the Campaign Life Coalition, told that “school children in Canada will soon be taught the particulars of anal sex and other homosexual practices,” if the bill passes. In 1999, a “defense of marriage” motion passed the Parliament by a vote of 216-55.

The Canadian travel industry has indicated the Supreme Court ruling had “branded” Canada as a gay- friendly destination that could draw an additional one billion dollars in tourism over the next three years.

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