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Gay marriage victory

Parliament rejects Harper's motion to reopen debate

'THE ISSUE IS SETTLED': A vindicated Laurie Arron of Canadians for Equal Marriage can't stop smiling an hour after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's motion is defeated by the House of Commons, Dec 7. Credit: Marcus McCann photo

OTTAWA — In the end, it was an easy victory for same-sex marriage rights. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motion to reopen the debate failed by a 52-vote margin, Dec 7.

Parliament’s original decision to legalize same-sex marriage in June 2005 passed by a slimmer margin of just 25 votes.

This year’s final tally was 175 to 123, as some 59 percent of MPs rejected Harper’s motion asking Parliament to “call on the government to introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage without affecting civil unions and while respecting existing same-sex marriages.”

“I don’t see reopening this question in the future,” Harper told reporters after the vote.

The head of Canadians for Equal Marriage breathed a sigh of relief. “The issue is settled,” said Laurie Arron. “We are heartened that the Canadian values of inclusion, equality and respect for difference have shown themselves stronger than ever.”

Canada is “the envy of the world,” Arron continued. “In the not too distant future, we will look back and wonder how this was an issue at all. We will be proud that Canada chose to continue its tradition of inclusion and respect for diversity and refused to turn back the clock on equality.

“And, hopefully, one day, the idea that someone would hide their sexual orientation or their gender identity will make no sense at all. We look forward to that day,” he added.

Thirteen Conservatives broke ranks to vote against reopening the marriage debate, including Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, Trade Minister David Emerson, Treasury Board President John Baird, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon and International Cooperation Minister Josée Verner.

“The current law reflects my personal views,” Verner said in French during the Dec 6 debate on the motion. “I am among those firmly in favour of the separation of church and state.”

Though MacKay voted against legalizing same-sex marriage last year, he said dragging out the debate now distracts Parliament from other goals.

“For me, this was just a practical matter,” he told the Globe and Mail after the vote. “It’s been debated in the House. It’s been considered by the provinces, by the courts, and I think it’s time to move on.”

Conservative backbencher James Moore, from the riding of Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, also broke ranks with Harper and voted against the motion. Moore was one of only three Conservative MPs who voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005. Six other backbench Conservatives joined him this time around.

Liberal MP Joe Comuzzi, who resigned from cabinet last year rather than vote for gay marriage, also voted against the motion, urging those who opposed same-sex marriage to recognize that it’s now “the law of the land.” He even told the Conservatives to “reconsider bringing forward the motion.”

Toronto Liberal Bill Graham pleaded with Harper to make this the last debate on equal marriage. “Promise this country, promise this House, that this is the last time. Tell them it’s not an election strategy. Do not inflict this agony on gays and lesbians.”

In all, only 13 Liberals voted against equal marriage this time, down from 32 in 2005. All members of the NDP and Bloc Québécois present for the motion opposed it.

Though Harper voted for the motion on Dec 7, he did not participate in the debate the day before.

After the vote, he told reporters he doesn’t intend to introduce a defence of religion act. Word leaked in October that the Conservatives were allegedly drafting an act to allow public officials to refuse marriage licences to queer couples; to allow religious groups to refuse services to queers; and to protect religious homophobes from charges of hate propaganda. Under existing laws, religious groups are already allowed to refuse to rent their spaces to queers, and to spew homophobia provided their statements are based on religious beliefs.

“The nature of the concerns that are being raised with me are relating to freedom of religion and freedom to practice religion [and] freedom of expression,” Justice Minister Vic Toews told the Globe Oct 4, in an apparent confirmation that the bill was being drafted.

The next day Toews backpedalled. So did Harper, who told the House of Commons: “In fact, the government has not any plans at all along the lines that he’s suggesting.”

The Globe suggested the Conservatives would try to introduce the act if they lost the motion to reopen the marriage debate.

Now Harper says he has no plans “at this time” to bring forward such an act. However, he told reporters: “If there ever were a time in the future where fundamental freedoms were threatened, of course the government would respond to protect them.”

Outside the House, just hours before the vote, gay Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay told a group of Carleton University students demonstrating in favour of same-sex marriage that he’s hoping Parliament will finally put the issue to rest.

“It should have been put to rest in the last Parliament,” he said. “But with vigilance we’ll make sure that our rights are protected and we’ll stand on guard for those rights.”