4 min

Conservatives would call marriage vote

Election call will hurt bawdyhouse, marijuana law reform

Credit: Shawn Scallen

Opponents of same-sex civic marriage have started a new group to fight a rear-guard action against Bill C-38 throughout the election.

But gays and lesbians shouldn’t panic, says lesbian MP Libby Davies. Gay rights, including marriage, are here to stay.

Defend Marriage Canada was formed last week by former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien — who left the party to sit as an independent this summer over his opposition to Bill C-38 — and retired former Reform MP Grant Hill.

O’Brien and Hill plan to raise money, write letters and lobby voters to support candidates opposing same-sex marriage.

Hill, an Alberta doctor, is best known for his pronouncements as an MP that gays spread disease.

But Davies says same-sex marriage is here to stay.

“The massive movement that took place here for gay and lesbian equality rights is not going to be undone. I’m 100 percent sure of that.”

Conservative leader Stephen Harper has pledged to hold another vote on same-sex marriage if his party forms government. Harper would allow all MPs to vote their conscience on the issue. Bill C-38 would likely have been defeated if Paul Martin had allowed his Liberal cabinet to vote their conscience.

Davies is less sure about the fate of Canada’s laws against soliciting for prostitution. A Justice subcommittee was formed at her urging to look into reforming the laws used to target prostitutes and customers of gay bathhouses. For the first time in history, MPs toured the country to meet with prostitutes. But the committee didn’t complete its report and recommendations prior to the Nov 28 election call.

The evidence heard by the committee can be preserved, says Davies. And the committee could pick up and continue its work after the election — provided all parties agree. But that might not happen; Conservative member Art Hanger was opposed to the report’s overall direction.

Davies says she has pleaded with Justice Minister Irwin Cotler to take up the issue again after the election.

“I’ll keep pushing it,” she says. “I hope it comes up in the election. We need a countrywide debate on this.”

The bill decriminalizing small quantities of marijuana is also dead with the end of this Parliament — unless it’s brought back by all-party agreement.

Bill C-17 was controversial with both liberally-minded Canadians and social conservatives. Progressives argued that the bill would result in stronger penalties for people found with small quantities of weed than are now handed out by judges in Canada’s largest cities. But it would help casual users in more rural areas while still drawing a line at dealers, argued the bill’s advocates.

Conservatives condemned the legislation as being soft on drugs and inviting the wrath of the United States, where legislation is getting ever tougher on even soft drugs even as the “say no” campaigns fail to stem the use of weed.

Conservatives won the day as Prime Minister Paul Martin leaned on the federal Justice Committee to hold back the legislation.

“I’m furious about it,” says Davies, who is her party’s spokesperson on the bill. “It’s the Liberals getting scared to move away from social and cultural prohibition. We need to face the harm that’s being created by the law itself, by prohibition.”

Davies saw the bill as flawed — by not moving far enough to legalization of grass. That’s a move supported by even the usually conservative National Post newspaper and the Fraser Institute.

Marijuana decriminalization originated with the previous Chrétien government. Then-justice minister Martin Cauchon sent a bill through the house and to committee in 2003 and rushed it back to the house for third reading. The bill got worldwide attention; the Economist magazine hailed Canada’s progressive stands on drugs and same-sex rights. But when Martin became prime minister the bill was delayed until after the election — and then he sent a revised bill to the Justice Committee in November, 2004 for further study, and it’s languished there since.

“They’re chicken-shit,” says Davies.

She says Canadians want to move away from a prohibition approach on drugs, with its high policing costs and low success rates, to one based on choice and harm-reduction strategies.

In the election campaign itself, Canada’s gay lobby group won’t be sending out a message for the gay community to vote “strategically” this election, says Egale Canada’s executive director Gilles Marchildon.

It didn’t work when Egale called for strategic voting in the 2004 federal vote, he says. “It became obvious that that term has different meanings, lends itself to confusion and we didn’t achieve what we wanted to last election,” he says.

Many queer voters misunderstood the meaning of voting strategically, says Marchildon, particularly in the heat of the final days of the election when the Liberals also asked voters to vote for them to prevent a socially conservative Harper government from being elected.

Egale had hoped people who supported gay marriage would look closely at their local candidates and choose carefully. That could have meant supporting some pro-gay Conservative candidates like Gerald Kenney or Belinda Stronach (who has since crossed the floor to join the Liberals). Or it could have meant supporting the Liberal or NDP candidate most likely to defeat an ant-igay marriage Conservative candidate.

Instead, many people simply voted Liberal, with the result that some anti-gay marriage Liberals won by defeating pro-gay NDP candidates. In other ridings, as voters followed the call to strategic voting and switched from the leading NDP candidate to the trailing Liberal candidate, it allowed an anti-gay marriage Conservative to emerge the winner.

According to NDP strategists, as many as a dozen NDP candidates across the country but mainly in BC — most of them strongly in favour of same-sex marriage legislation — were defeated by Conservatives or Liberals as people voted strategically. Many of those winners later voted against Bill C-38.

“The national race seems to have too much influence in local ridings for a strategic voting message [to gays and lesbians] to be effective,” says Marchildon.