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Marriage vote could come soon — or not

Age of consent likely to return to parliament first

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC. Egale Canada ED Gilles Marchildon warns the same-sex motion could be introduced suddenly.

In the wake of violence at Dawson College, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has temporarily stopped pandering to the Christian rightwingers opposing same-sex marriage and started pandering to the conservative law-and-order types. But does that mean that same-sex marriage is safe?

While campaigning last December, Harper promised to revisit Canada’s same-sex marriage legislation if elected. In June, Harper confirmed he would address the issue this fall. Before the Sep 13 events at Dawson College, pundits pegged the probable date of a Conservative motion as Sep 28. Now, some experts suggest that the motion has been dropped from the fall agenda.

When it does hit the parliamentary agenda, Harper’s marriage strategy will be two-pronged. First, he will introduce a motion asking MPs to vote on whether they would like to see the debate on same-sex marriage reopened. If it passes, a second motion would ask parliament to repeal the existing legislation and reestablish marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. But numbers bandied about by queer lobby group Egale Canada suggest that the initial vote will fail; even some MPs who oppose same-sex marriage don’t want to reopen the divisive issue.

“A lot of MPs are keeping their cards close to their chest,” says Egale’s executive director Gilles Marchildon. “I’m still cautiously optimistic.”

Religious groups opposing same-sex marriage have invited their supporters to contact their MPs.

“We can’t rest on our laurels and trust that MPs will do the right thing, especially since we know that the religious right has mobilized,” Marchildon says.

Unlike a full-fledged bill, Harper’s motion to reopen debate could be introduced and a vote forced suddenly. The question could come “with little or no warning,” says Canadians For Equal Marriage’s national coordinator, Laurie Arron.

Marchildon estimates that roughly 160 MPs are opposed to reconsidering marriage, with 136 for and 12 undecided. Many consider a vote to reopen the issue unwinnable. An Environics poll released in June showed that 62 percent of Canadians consider the same-sex marriage debate settled, while just 27 percent want to see the issue revisited.

But the Conservatives may be pursuing a different strategy. On Sep 20, Harper announced the appointment of David Brown to the Ontario Superior Court. Brown has represented religious, socially conservative views in a handful of cases and has written papers on the “sanctity of life.”

Some activists fear that if Harper stays in power long enough, he could stack the courts with antigay and anti-abortion activists. If so, legislation might not be necessary; conservative groups could use court challenges to put forward their agenda.

While repealing same-sex marriage has apparently been sidelined, age of consent remains a possible agenda item for the fall. A bill to raise the age to 16 from 14 was introduced in June.

Young people are rallying against the bill, but that hasn’t stopped even some left-leaning politicians from supporting the legislation. At a recent NDP policy conference, Bob Gallagher and other party bigwigs pulled a procedural sleight of hand to make a youth delegate motion to condemn the bill disappear.