Only a few days after Stephen Harper became the prime minister-designate, he was asked during a press conference about his day-one campaign promise to reopen the issue of equal marriage.
“I’ve simply said we’ll be doing it in the life of the Parliament,” he said. “I would prefer to do it sooner rather than later, but not immediately.”
What exactly does that mean and how does it demonstrate how this Conservative minority government will handle other issues near and dear to Canadian queers?
Harper is expected to introduce a motion later this year, perhaps in the fall, asking parliamentarians if they want to reexamine the marriage issue. If that motion passes, then Harper would bring forward legislation to reverse C-38, Canada’s same-sex marriage law.
A motion, unlike proposed legislation, can be introduced and voted on in a day’s notice, says Laurie Aaron, director of advocacy for queer lobby group Egale Canada. “Since we need to assure the defeat of that motion, we must be prepared for it anytime.”
According to the polls, it’s not a winning move for Harper’s popularity.
“Mr Harper should think twice before moving to take away equal marriage and trying to make us second-class citizens,” says Gilles Marchildon, Egale’s executive director. “Canadians want Parliament to deal with issues like health, education and the environment, not spend its time in a divisive and legally pointless debate.”
Most experts agree that the debate wouldn’t mean much legally since Harper has promised not to invoke the notwithstanding clause, which would allow the federal government to override rights guaranteed under the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms. So any law passed to take away marriage rights would be unconstitutional and unenforceable, says Aaron.
Harper doesn’t have a mandate to implement the socially conservative policies favoured by many of his MPs, says Marchildon. In the election, Harper downplayed those issues.
“We noted a specific effort to muzzle candidates” with the strongest views on queer rights, same-sex marriage and socially conservative beliefs, says Marchildon, though he expects battles over the legality of bathhouses, and perhaps the cancellation of funding for the National Day Against Homophobia.
David Rayside, openly gay political science professor at the University Of Toronto, says Harper’s image was hurt by his politicization of the judicial branch of government. “He talked about judges in a political context. The various leaders of the old Progressive Conservative party did not talk in those terms.”
Rayside says this kind of talk may cost Harper a shot at a majority whenever the next election happens, since it makes him seem too rightwing.
“That fuelled a certain fear of what Harper’s intentions really were,” says Rayside. “It suggested to some that he does indeed have a radical agenda.”
More than a marriage rollback, Rayside fears how Harper will be able to reshape the judiciary with a conservative tilt.
“He claims to want judges who will listen to and abide by legislative wishes, but that’s an inconsistent position since the Charter was approved by the federal legislature, so it’s not like judges upholding the Charter are going against the legislature,” says Rayside. “What he really means is that he wants judges who are less enthusiastic about the Charter. He’s very likely to import a litmus test approach to judicial appointments, and that’s not a route we want to go down.”
Although Harper has said that he wants to change the process by which judges are vetted, Rayside does not expect Harper to give up his right as prime minister to appoint whoever he wants.
Rayside is also concerned about issues affecting queer people that will not need legislative approval, such as the policies that govern immigration and refugee cases.
Still, one possible scenario is that Harper will continue with a more moderate image in this Parliament in the hopes of gaining a majority in the next election.
“There are fewer reasons to be alarmed since Harper only has a minority,” said Rayside.
Marchildon says the queer community has “got our work cut out for us. We need to be very vigilant and call them to task on any kind of clawbacks they propose to our equality.
“The beast is on the leash and at some point it will want to be freed from that leash.”