3 min

Human rights or hedonism?

Canadian policy leads a reluctant US into the 21st century

Same-sex marriage and liberal marijuana laws may just be continuing a long history of Canada corrupting Americans.

For example, during Prohibition in the United States, Canada was a rum-runner’s dream.

Close in proximity, and with much of its border unguarded, Canada supplied liquor to thirsty Americans who, after the Volstead Act became law in 1920, were not permitted to manufacture, sell, import or export alcohol.

Some Americans blamed Canada’s influence as part of the reason Prohibition failed in the United States. Now, Canada’s new Cannabis Reform Bill is causing concern among conservative politicians and law enforcement agencies, such as the US Drug Enforcement Administration, who fear that liberalized laws will create a new wave of illicit trade and hinder the “war on drugs.”

Along with proposed legislation to allow same-sex marriages, the spectre of decriminalization might haunt American conservatives who view Canada as a burgeoning paradise for hedonists.

Often perceived to be under the influence of the United States, Canada truly is historically and currently different.

The United States never passed the Equal Rights Amendment. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees equality to men and women. Canada has always shown a more relaxed attitude towards sex, nudity and profanity on television, even before the era of Showcase.

In 1969, Canada decriminalized homosexuality. Only in June of this year did the United States Supreme Court strike down sodomy laws that still existed in 13 states.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, commenting for the majority wrote, “Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places,” a statement that echoes then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau’s oft-quoted 1967 comment that “there’s no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation.”

The US decision was not without unequivocal dissension. The minority claimed the court had given in to the so-called gay agenda, and argued that the ruling paved the way for gay marriage. President Bush has vowed to fight that possibility.

Conservative Americans might envision hordes of its citizens dashing north to marry a same-sex partner and blithely returning home with a stash of pot for the wedding reception, but their fears are largely unfounded.

Unlike alcohol in the 1920s, it will still be against the law in Canada to possess cannabis. The proposed legislation will merely make penalties for possession of small amounts less severe, and offenders will no longer have a criminal record. Growers, however, will face more severe penalties than they have in the past, and it will still be illegal to cross the border with any amount of pot. The Department of Justice assures Americans that the proposed new laws have the same objective as American laws: to reduce the supply and consumption of cannabis.

The United States recognizes marriages performed in other countries, but same-sex marriages fall into a legal gray zone.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in the Netherlands since 2001, and in Belgium since January of this year. But Canada is a more convenient destination for Americans; a couple can be married and return home on the same day.

Between Jun 10, when Ontario began to allow same-sex marriage, and mid-July, nearly 60 licenses for American same-sex couples were issued by Toronto City Hall. But when those newlyweds returned home, their marital status varied from state to state.

Only Vermont permits same-sex civil unions. Some other states do not even have legislative protection for GLBT people.

The roots of these different Canadian and American attitudes are located in the different founding fathers of the countries. Many American colonies were established by religious groups – notably the Puritans. These early influences still permeate American society today

The American Civil Liberties Union might concur. Last year, the ACLU expressed concern about political influence by high-profile right-wing groups, specifically the Christian Coalition, whose goal is to have a federal government based in Christian ideology.

The ACLU is striving to make Americans aware of these religious and political ties and their potential threat to secular government.

It is possible, though, that liberal Canadians are deceiving themselves when they boast of a more tolerant Canada. The Act Respecting Certain Aspects of Legal Capacity for Marriage and the Cannabis Reform Bill have just begun their slow, uncertain journey to becoming law and already Canadian religious leaders and groups are up in arms.

Catholic priests have been ordered to denounce the bill during their sermons and the bishop of Calgary has said that Jean Chretien could go to hell because of same-sex marriage.

Members of Parliament, including a large number of Liberal backbenchers, have said they will vote against the bill because of religious belief or pressure from religious constituents.

But when a conservative institution such as the Canadian Supreme Court decides cases in favour of GLBT rights, it sets precedents, especially when its newest appointee, Justice Morris Fish, is a liberal. Even if the legislature ends up voting down the bill, past legal decisions suggest that the Supreme Court would eventually rule that same-sex marriage must be allowed. Such an assertion cannot be made about the US Supreme Court.