3 min

Preaching to Wawa

Rural Canadians hold ticket to queer nuptials

Credit: Suzy Malik

A newly-formed coalition to lobby for the Liberal government’s same-sex marriage bill will have to reach out to rural and small-town Canadians if it hopes to have any effect.

With gay and lesbian rights turning into an issue for the upcoming federal election – and perhaps even the Ontario provincial election – the coalition will need to spread its message beyond the urban centres to ensure the free vote in Parliament passes.

“You can’t do it at Church and Wellesley,” says Bob Gallagher, who will coordinate the group, called Canadians For Equal Marriage. “But what you can do is cause enough fuss at Church and Wellesley that you spark a small initiative on the part of the person in Wawa and you give them the support.”

The battle has unfortunate parallels to Ontario’s failed Bill 167. Introduced in 1994, it would have given same-sex couples rights equal to straight common-law couples. But Bob Rae’s governing New Democrats put the bill to a free vote only to see Liberal leader Lyn McLeod, who had previously supported the bill, change her mind and have her caucus vote against it.

Gallagher, who works as Toronto City Councillor Olivia Chow’s executive assistant and who took a leave of absence in 1994 from his job to coordinate that effort, is doing the same again. He says the campaign will focus on individual MPs, assessing their position and their concerns, and taking them on one-by-one.

“One thing we are finding is that each MP is different,” says Gallagher. “Some of them have religious concerns, and we have to address those. Others have getting re-elected concerns.”

Another newly-created group in the coalition is within the Liberal party, led by Toronto Centre-Rosedale MPP George Smitherman.

“Our goal will be to do advocacy and it will be Ontario-wide… focussing on federal MPs,” says Smitherman.

Last week Smitherman held a press conference at the corner of Church and Wellesley, announcing that the Liberals will make same-sex marriage an issue in the upcoming provincial election. Though it’s not a provincial responsibility, Ontario Premier Ernie Eves’ reversal on same-sex marriage – first he said he wouldn’t interfere with two people who wanted to form a union, then he said he considered marriage to be exclusively heterosexual, then he backtracked – has made it an issue of credibility.

“A matter of personal principle expressed a year ago can be thrown overboard easily when some wag puts a poll in his face,” Smitherman told reporters.

Tapping into the broad base of support for same-sex marriage shown by polls is a big challenge. In most provinces, a slim majority of voters approve of same-sex marriage, though it’s not a cause the average straight Canadian is inclined to get upset about.

“In the end we forget we have lots of support out there, but we don’t mobilize it very well and we need to do that,” Gallagher says.

Preaching to the converted can be a waste of time.

“One thing we found with Bill 167 was that we have thousands of wonderful volunteers who will all come down to the office at Church and Wellesley to do all kinds of work, but in fact the people whose hearts and minds you have to change are sitting in Wawa, Ontario.”

And Gallagher says the only way to get to those in non-urban areas with no advertising dollars is to garner national media attention with media stunts and celebrities.

“By doing the media thing… you get a number and a website to get a hold of us and it’s that antique dealer in Wawa or the high school kid in Wawa or the female mechanic in Wawa who finally e-mails us or faxes us and says, ‘How can I help?'”

The government has to wait for the Supreme Court Of Canada to rule on the constitutionality of the bill before it can be introduced in the House Of Commons. As the court will hear arguments Apr 16, 2004, there has been speculation the bill could be introduced as late as 2005, assuming a Liberal victory in a spring election.

* For more information or to make a donation, check out Cheques payable to Canadians For Equal Marriage can be sent to 410 Sherbourne St, Main Floor, Toronto M4X 1K2. You can use to send e-mail about same-sex marriage to various officials.