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 equal 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 it this fall. Before the Sep 13 events at Dawson College, pundits pegged the probable date of a Conservative motion at 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 equal marriage discussion re-opened. If it passes, a second vote will repeal the legislation and establish marriage as between a man and a woman. But numbers bandied about by Egale suggest that the initial vote will fail, since some MPs who oppose equal marriage don’t want to reopen the divisive issue.
“A lot of MPs are keeping their cards close to their chest,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale.
“I’m still cautiously optimistic.”
Religious groups opposing equal 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 full-fledged bills, Harper’s motion could be introduced and a vote forced suddenly. The question could be introduced “with little or no warning,” according to 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 re-open 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.
Same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for roughly 14 months. However, when Bill C-38 was passed last July, almost all Canadians could already get married in their home provinces, except those living in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, PEI, and Alberta. Provincial courts in Canada’s three most populated provinces – Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec – had legalized civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples between June of 2003 and March of 2004.
But the Conservatives may be pursuing a different strategy for advancing their social conservative agenda.
On Sep 20, Harper announced the appointment of David Brown to the Ontario Superior Court in the Toronto area. Brown has represented religious, socially-conservative views in a handful of cases and has written papers on the “sanctity of life.”
Some fear that if Harper stays in power long enough, he could stack the courts with anti-gay and anti-abortion activists. If so, then legislation might not be necessary; conservative groups could use court challenges to put forward their agenda.
While repealing equal marriage has apparently been sidelined, age of consent remains a possible agenda item for the fall. Justice minister Vic Toews announced in Feb that raising the age of consent from 14 to 16 would be a priority for the Conservatives. The bill was introduced in June.
The bill’s conservative supporters are spurred on by cases that have very little do to with age of consent. One example refers to a 31-year-old Edmonton man convicted of using the internet to lure a 13-year-old autistic girl into sexual acts.
Gay activists since the 1970s have grappled with age of consent and the issue has remained a sticking point with more conservative members of the queer community.
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 disappear. The motion would have seen the NDP condemn Toews’ position on youth sexuality. Instead a motion put forward by NDP Justice critic Joe Comartin implicitly supporting the legislation was shuffled to the top.
But it might be a decision that requires no vote that is the most telling of Harper’s fall agenda. After years of crying for more democracy, critics are suggesting he is quietly turning off the funding valve for some of Canada’s most prestigious women’s groups.
The Conservative government has failed to reply to women’s groups that receive federal funding, letting funding usually supplied annually dry up. One group referred to the government response as hitting a “wall of silence.” The National Association for Women and the Law has shut down already, and groups like Status of Women Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action are also being ignored.
The government has also kept Vancouver’s safe-injection site on life support. Rather than fully renew its mandate, the Conservatives have only extended its life by a year, just long enough to get beyond the next federal election. It is North America’s leading harm-reduction site and one proven to have saved lives. The mayor, MPs, BC MLAs, premier Gordon Campbell and even the Vancouver police chief support it. But the site is said to run counter to the Say No To Drug ideology of the Harper Conservatives.
Harper heads a precarious minority government. Legislation is only one of the many levers of power that a government controls. Many funding, appointment and policy decisions can be made without risking a vote that could force another election.