Canadian leader wavers on gay marriage

VANCOUVER – In a blow to equal rights, one of the first acts undertaken by Canada’s new Prime Minister (PM) Paul Martin has been to backslide on the previous government’s commitment to allow same-sex marriages.

Last summer, the Liberal Party government led by Jean Chretien announced that it would legislate equal marriage for same-sex couples. It drafted legislation extending marriage to gay couples and sent it to the Supreme Court along with three questions: Is equal marriage legislation the jurisdiction of Parliament? Is it consistent with the Charter of Freedom and Rights? Is freedom of religion adequately protected?

They did this to provide comfort to Canadians who are unsure about the issue and fear that clergy will be forced to marry same-sex couples. The Supreme Court was expected to present its ruling in April. However, on Jan. 28 the PM and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler announced that they would submit a fourth question to the Supreme Court, namely, asking it what it thinks of simply maintaining the current definition of marriage, which restricts the institution to opposite sex couples.

Cotler maintains that the federal government still favors expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples. “We are reaffirming our position in support of same-sex marriage. This is unwavering,” he told reporters. However, critics claim that the government is backing down from its previous promise.

According to Bob Gallagher, coordinator of the lobby group Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM), the new question “will delay the Reference (Supreme Court ruling) between six months to a year. Second, it will open up many legal issues during the hearings and ruling. And lastly, it will assure that the Supreme Court ruling, and any possible legislation, will be after a spring election.”

According to Gill Machildon, executive director of the gay rights group EGALE Canada, “The Justice Minister said the government is committed to equal marriage for same-sex couples. However, our communities will certainly be scratching their heads and wondering whether they can trust the PM to maintain his support for equal marriage legislation.”

Cotler admits that the new question will delay the Supreme Court ruling until the fall of 2004 and delay any legislation that the government might introduce until 2005. Martin denies that he is stalling on the issue until after an expected spring election.

The other matter that concerns CEM is Martin’s decision to allow a free vote in Parliament when legislation approving same-sex marriage is finally submitted instead of requiring his fellow Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs) to support the legislation as a human rights issue. “They refuse to ensure that the legislation passes. This situation assures that the issue of same-sex marriage (and lesbian and gay rights generally) will be a hot button issue in many ridings across the country.” Many Liberal Party MPs oppose allowing gay couples to marry.

The CEM (www.equal-marriage.ca) has initiated a country wide campaign on the issue. According to Gallagher, “the passage of equal marriage legislation, and the equality balance of Parliament, will depend on our intervention in dozens of riding battles during the federal election.”

The author can be reached at tpelzer@spring.ca.