2 min

Inferior & unpopular

What they forget about the Charter

Canada is a hip and happening place, according to the UK magazine The Economist. The august business publication is an unlikely arbiter of what’s cool, and frankly, its editors may be sorely mistaken.

They credit Canada with “a certain boldness in social matters,” citing same-sex marriage and marijuana decriminalization in particular. To the outsider, it certainly may look that way. The rest of the world seems to believe these are already done deals. And yet it’s quite likely that Parliament will not pass into law the bills pertaining to these two matters.

The debate over same-sex marriage in this country has morphed into something else altogether. It has become a debate over how Canadian democracy works. And whether you think gay marriage is the ultimate civil rights battle, the ultimate sell-out or the ultimate bromide, you ought to be concerned with how this debate plays itself out.

Canada has a long (if selective) tradition of protecting minority rights, a tradition entrenched in 1982’s Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. The Charter has become a central document in spelling out our underlying values, and through its interpretation by the courts, it could very well turn out that we have gay marriage (at least in some parts of the country) with no help from Parliament.

But Canada has other long traditions that are not so noble: the involvement of religion in public affairs, for one, and our slavish respect for traditional authority, for another.

And so it is that the turning point in the marriage debate was the Pope’s decree against it during the summer. That decree sparked a reaction by all kinds of religious groups. And they, in turn, got politicians scared, to the point where an Alliance motion defining marriage as between one man and one woman resulted in a tie on its first vote in the House Of Commons last month.

Of course, part of the job of protecting minorities means protecting freedom of religion. And I’m happy to allow religious pilgrims their odd ideas – the offensive ones as well as the charming ones. But religious intolerance must not set public policy. Period.

Canada also has a long tradition of populism, resuscitated in recent years by the Reform Party, now known as the Alliance. It’s a form of politics which calls itself grassroots, but which is really about majorities – whether at a national level or in local communities – turning on the minorities in their midst.

It’s a mindset contrary to the Charter, and with the Alliance in opposition, it has crept its way into Canadians’ political expectations. A free vote on a human rights issue allows for precisely the kind of tyranny of the majority that the Charter is meant to dispel.

We smugly believe we can rely on the courts to impose Charter rights. But there is a real need for leadership in explaining the thinking behind the Charter to Canadians, in order to prevent governments from overruling it, and to alleviate the public hostility toward the Charter that will surely come if Canadians feel the Charter works against their will.

Religious groups have already succeeded in pressuring MPs to abandon gay marriage, not because gay men and lesbians are different but equal, but because we are immoral and inferior, and because Jesus says no.

Meanwhile, ordinary Canadians believe that their own discomfort with homosexuality should be reflected in the rights we are granted. The government has encouraged this expectation by allowing a free vote, turning what the government itself calls a human rights issue into a popularity contest – even though rights legislation is meant to protect the unpopular. All in all, it’s a sorry state of affairs, for queers and for the operation of democracy.

Canada enjoys a reputation as a country riding a wave of respectful diversity, where we have freed ourselves from the sillier proscriptions of conventional morality. The reaction to gay marriage in recent months reveals a dangerous undertow of powerful resistance to these values. It’s not cool.

* David Walberg is Xtra’s publisher.