As the Liberal government prepared to table its same-sex marriage legislation on Feb 1, rhetoric from the right against the bill intensified – both in its frequency and its vitriol.
Several religious and conservative leaders have spoken out against the bill, claiming that if the legislation is approved, it will have many unseen consequences on the fabric of Canadian life and family values.
Ottawa’s Catholic Archbishop Marcel Gervais, in an open letter read during every service in the archdiocese late last month, is urging his thousands of parishioners to publicly speak out against the legislation.
“Everyone agreed that the most effective action is for each of us to write, telephone or e-mail our Prime Minister, our own Members Of Parliament, Senators and the leaders of each of the political parties and insist that the traditional definition of marriage must be upheld for the common good of our society,” states Gervais in the letter dated Jan 26, which is also posted on the archdiocese’s website.
Because of these well-organized and public campaigns by those against gay marriage, activists are urging supporters to stand up and make their voices heard over the next few weeks, in what could be the most critical time regarding the future of same-sex marriage in Canada.
According to Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale Canada, Members Of Parliament are being inundated with communications from those opposed. One member’s office recently received more than 1,800 e-mails against the bill – in a single week.
“We know that our supporters have sent out some messages, but it is nowhere near the same quantity. It’s obvious we can’t match number-for-number, which is why we are telling supporters to pick up the phone, or to write a specific letter to their MP and send it by mail,” says Marchildon.
In addition to organized communication campaigns, some anti-marriage activists have also turned to fear-mongering in an attempt discourage support for the bill, arguing that if the bill is approved by Parliament, it could open the door to legalized polygamy.
Most notably, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper has publicly linked the two, warning recently that if the legislation is approved, “the next thing on the Liberal agenda will be polygamy – and who knows what else.”
Harper’s comments come on the heels of a Jan 20 front page Ottawa Citizen article, which claimed the government had recently launched an “urgent study” due to concerns that same-sex unions would “open the door” to Charter challenges by those in favor of polygamy.
The article was also posted on the paper’s website and included a “Sound Off” area where readers could post comments regarding the article and the issues it raised, something the paper does frequently with selected online stories.
Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Richard Warman, however, thinks that some of the online postings following the article – specifically those that attempted to link homosexuality with so-called deviant and illegal sexual behaviors – crossed the line into hate speech.
“That kind of material linking the homosexual community with bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia is exactly what the tribunal found contravened the Canadian Human Rights Act,” says Warman about the posts on the Citizen’s website. “And this is explicit in its linking.”
Warman cites the case of Mark Schnell, who filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) in 1999 and 2000 against John Micka, claiming that a website Micka ran communicated comments that were offensive and derogatory regarding homosexuals, including some messages implying that homosexuals are pedophiles. The CHRC ruled in favor of Schnell, and Micka was ordered to shut his website down.
After contacting the Ottawa paper, Warman, who is straight, says one of the most “spurious” postings was removed, but several others that also mentioned polygamy, bestiality or pedophilia remained.
“There will, of course, be differences of opinion, but those opinions can be expressed in respectful ways that don’t promote hatred or contempt of a group based on their sexuality, based on their religion, their race – which are prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act,” he says. “It is only when you get into demonizing and vilifying a community that you run into problems. And when you make associations between the gay and lesbian community and pedophilia, necrophilia and bestiality, I think that it is quite clear that it crosses the line. And I think that the judicial system in Canada has already found that to be the case.”
But while some of the more outrageous public debate on the right may cross the line, Mar-childon says he thinks it has little overall effect on swaying people’s opinion one way or another.
“I think a lot of mainstream Canadians see through that fear-mongering,” says Marchildon. “But it is a way the religious right is galvanizing their supporters. I believe they are on very thin ice with the strength of their arguments and this just shows their desperation.”
But with the timetable regarding a vote on the government’s legislation still an unknown, same-sex marriage activists are urging the gay community to step forward and be counted – before it is too late.
“I think that it is very timely throughout February for people to raise their voices,” Marchildon says.