3 min

Do civil unions scare you?

The Liberals are warming up to them

CHANGING TEAMS. Scott Brison is a Liberal now. Credit: Jake Wright

With MP Scott Brison’s defection from the new Conservative Party Of Canada, the federal Liberals can now boast their first-ever openly gay caucus member.

Strangely enough, though, Brison’s switch increases rather than decreases the growing un-certainty about how Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government intends to handle the same-sex marriage issue.

Martin’s new cabinet choices have pushed some of same-sex marriage’s strongest advocates to the sidelines and Brison himself advocates civil unions.

“I really do think that the Martin team has had a complete shuffle in terms of this issue,” says Bob Gallagher, national coordinator with the group Canadians For Equal Marriage. “The people who have been the most outspoken on this issue, who used to be at the centre of the government, are now completely outside the centre of the government. And some of the people that we know have actually opposed this are now in the cabinet. That’s what gives us reason to worry.”

Gallagher says former prime minister Jean Chrétien provided a tremendous amount of leadership on the issue, including his decision to let stand Ontario and British Columbia court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage and his decision to refer a question to the Supreme Court Of Canada that presumes Parliament will deliver full-fledged marriage.

“We have yet to see Paul Martin provide that kind of leadership,” says Gallagher.

If Martin is keeping his hand close to his chest, his number one wildcard is Brison.

On Dec 10, Brison left the unified Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative Party (now renamed the Conservative Party) after becoming frustrated with its church-influenced leadership. Quebec MP André Bachand, New Brunswick MP John Herron and former Progressive Conservative party leader Joe Clark had left the new party the weekend it formed.

Now with the Liberals, Brison becomes the first openly gay member of the Liberal caucus, and has been rewarded with a cabinet position as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister with special emphasis on Canada-US relations.

Brison, the MP for Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia, says he will continue to support registered domestic partnership for all Canadians as the solution to the equal marriage issue.

“I have always said, right even from the [PC] leadership race, that my proposal was registered domestic partnerships for all Canadians,” says Brison. “It can work and would effectively get the government out of the marriage business altogether.”

Under this policy, the word marriage would be in the domain of religious institutions – some of which recognize same-sex marriage and some of which don’t – and so would not have any legal meaning for anybody.

“There’s going to be discussion in the coming weeks and months on this issue and my position will respect whatever definition will respect to the equality of all Canadians. I can guarantee you that,” says Brison.

The first test for Martin’s team will be how his government deals with the Supreme Court reference put forward by Chrétien and hisjustice minister, Martin Cauchon.

There is now mounting pressure within the party to expand the focus of that reference, which is due before the court in April. And while Martin’s new justice minister, Irwin Cotler, has shown support for the issue in the past, he has recently said that he would consider expanding the reference to include looking at civil unions.

Right now the reference refers specifically to marriage, asking the court whether Parliament has the authority to extend marriage to same-sex couples, whether same-sex marriage would be consistent with the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and whether it would conflict with the freedom of religion.

“For him to expand the question and add the issue of civil unions, it would dramatically expand what the court needs to look at…. It would not only take a much longer time, it would show absolutely no leadership on the government’s part,” says Gallagher.

Also noteworthy is Judy Sgro’s appoinment as the new minister of citizenship and immigration.

“Judy Sgro has been an out-spoken critic of same-sex marriage and she has indicated that she would vote against same-sex marriage,” says Gallagher.

Bill Graham, MP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, got to keep his position as foreign affairs minister in Martin’s cabinet.

“Bill Graham is someone who has been very strong on this [supporting equal marriage],” says Gallagher. “He has personal beliefs and he has a constituency that has strong feelings on this, and I could imagine him starting to take more of a leadership role.”

It is, however, debatable how much power any one politician will have in the new cabinet.

“This is an issue that’s going to be decided in part by the courts and in part by the full Parliament of Canada,” says Pat O’Brien, Liberal MP for London-Fanshawe. “I’m sure that when the times comes there will be a free vote on this issue ultimately.”