It was a day of political highs for gays and lesbians. And a day of political lows for gays and lesbians.
Canada’s Senate on Jul 19 gave third and final reading to two major pieces of legislation, each of which has profound impact for queers: Bills C-2 and C-38.
Bill C-38, a bill redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, was approved by a 47 to 21 vote (and three abstentions) a little after 11pm.
The vote came after almost nine hours of deliberations, including several attempts to amend or re-write the bill in a way that would have radically transformed its meaning or sent it back to the House of Commons in the fall.
At times, the bill’s opponents were strident in their arguments. But they added little to a debate that has raged for nearly five years and uncovered multiple arguments in opposition and in favour of same-sex civic marriage.
Leonard Gustafson, a Conservative Senator from Saskatchewan, noted the high incidence of suicide among youth.
“We need to create an environment where they can grow up to be strong men and women in this country,” he said. He cited multiple letters and pamphlets opposing Bill C-38 from Christian Right organizations like Campaign Life, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
Conservative senator Anne Cools told Senators, “The government has, by coming forward with this bill, committed an act of Constitutional demolition and constitutional vandalism.”
Her voice quaking with emotion, Coors continued: “As if one can dismiss 800 years of the history of legal marriage?. The current Liberals don’t want to separate church from state, they want to separate Canadians from their religion.”
Céline Hervieux-Payette, a Quebec Liberal Senator read multiple definitions of the word marriage from dictionaries, concluding that it is inherently a relationship between a man and a woman.
“Gays should not be modifying the biological underpinnings of society. The gay lobby has clouded this issue so that we have been unable to delve into these issues and the impact on society.
“We must protect vulnerable Canadian children.”
Ontario Senator Consiglio Di Nino suggested a separate registration system for same-sex couples could achieve equality rights for gays without upsetting so many straights.
“It’s about an eight-letter word: marriage,” said Di Nino. Bill C-38 will “restore the dignity of some human beings at the expense of the dignity of others.”
Liberal Senator David Smith, an evangelical Christian from a family of several ordained ministers, challenged the religious interference in the debate.
“I don’t want any laws in the country I live in to be determined by priests, Buddhas, rabbis, mullahs or evangelical preachers, but by elected bodies.
“This legislation deals with minority rights. It is not a religious issue or faith issue.
“I’ve known people who were hostile to gay people. Then they found out someone in their family was gay. This affected their thinking. I want to reach out to this community and give them the minority rights that this Charter gives them.”
Aurélien Gill, noted that her exposure at the Senate committee hearings to opponents of same-sex marriage had strengthened her support for C-38. Gill quoted one committee presenter as suggesting gays were responsible for the rise of Adolf Hitler and were prone to violence.
“Anyone who says the gay movement is violent has never been to the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto. Homosexuals are not the perpetrators of violence; they have been its victims throughout history.
“Our Charter calls on us all to treat everyone equally and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Marcel Prud’homme, appointed to the Senate 42 years ago by Lester Pearson, said he had wrestled with the bill as a strong Catholic. He’d been through other profoundly divisive political disagreements, he said, listing the flag debate, the scuffle over the national anthem, the death penalty debate, and the rancor over legalizing abortion.
“It is difficult for me to vote for this bill,” said Prud’homme. “But I will because I go the extra mile to understand people’s views. Why do we not have faith in people? What is the fear of this bill?
“I say to my colleagues: Don’t have fear. The institution of marriage is very strong, but is changing.”
Prud’homme suggested that people opposing the bill because of their religious beliefs should “show your love to each other, go around, do not preach; be a walking example. I will sleep peacefully tonight because I know I supported this bill. People should leaver aside their meanness of spirit.”
“I’m proud to be a Canadian,” said Laurie Arron of Canadians for Equal Marriage, in an interview with Capital Xtra after the vote. “It’s an amazing country where values like equality, tolerance and mutual respect are valued. The equal marriage battle is finally over.”
The Governor General is expected to sign the bill on Wednesday or Thursday.
While gays won a high-profile victory with Bill C-38, the afternoon started with a major defeat for the community. Bill C-2 passed Third reading in the Senate with no speakers objecting.
Major gay organizations, including the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, had strongly opposed sections of Bill C-2. They suggested it would tread heavily on the rights of teens to choose how to express their own sexuality. And it would result in queer artists, journalists and writers being charged for producing child pornography for dealing with issues of coming out. Also, they noted that homophobic police and Crown Prosecutors could misuse sections of the bill to harass the gay community.
Civil libertarians, arts groups, writers and even the CBC told public hearings at the House of Commons and the Senate that they approve of the bill’s intention to stop child abuse but that C-2 goes dangerously overboard and will result in people being wrongly charged and perhaps convicted.
Some Senators seemed to agree. The legal and constitutional affairs committee took the rare step of attaching observations to the bill for Third reading. They want the government to review the bill within the next five years. And they expressed particular concern about the impact of the bill on artists and writers.
Canada’s national gay lobby group, Egale, sees C-2 as a setback and will work to have it changed, said Arron.
“We’re never going to give up on the issue of justice in the area of sexual regulation,” he said outside the Senate chambers. “What consenting adults do in private is their business. Teenagers should be empowered to make their own sexual choices, and at the same time should be protected from paedophiles. The new ‘sexual exploitation’ offences is prone to striking an improper balance.”
If artists are improperly targeted as a result of the bill, Egale will come forward, said Arron.
An “amazing array of organizations lined up against C-2.” But the government pushed it through anyway, he noted.