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Popular Topics in The Arts
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Congratulations to Canada
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/10/13
Last updated on: 06/10/13
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Congratulations to Canada on the tenth anniversary of its first legal same-sex marriages. On June 10, 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal established a definition of marriage as "the voluntary union for life of two persons to the exclusion of all others." The very next day, fearful that a stay of the ruling might be granted by the Supreme Court of Canada, Michael Leshner, a crown prosecutor, and his partner, Michael Stark, became the first gay couple to wed in a court-sanctioned ceremony in Canada. The achievement of marriage equality throughout the country in 2005 established Canada as a leader in the struggle for equality.

Canada's commitment to equal justice for its citizens has sharply distinguished it from its giant neighbor to the south and has served as an inspiration to the equal rights movement in the United States. But the achievement of equal rights was by no means easy. Crucial to the struggle was Canada's adoption of a Charter of Rights in 1980 and a major ruling by Canada's highest court in 1998 that effectively established a national gay rights law.

In May 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights and obligations as heterosexual couples, but did not specifically rule on the question of marriage itself. A month later Parliament voted overwhelmingly to retain the definition of marriage as strictly heterosexual.

In 2002, however, Superior Courts in Ontario and Quebec ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage was a violation of the Charter, and the next year the British Columbia Court of Appeal followed suit, but after issuing its ruling, the latter stayed it pending appeal to the Supreme Court.

However, the June 10, 2003 ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal went into effect immediately and Leshner and Stark, known as the "two Michaels," who had already been partners for over twenty years, rushed to Toronto City Hall to take advantage of the window of opportunity that they feared might soon be unceremoniously closed.

The "two Michaels," however, were not the first same-sex couples to wed in Canada. Indeed, they were able to marry in a court-sanctioned wedding precisely because two other same-sex couples--Elaine and Anne Vatour and Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell--married before them in a widely publicized religious ceremony.

In 2000, Rev. Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto noticed a provision in the Ontario Marriage Act that the Registrar General was authorized to record marriages solemnized by a cleric if the names of a couple desiring to marry are read at church services on three consecutive Sundays with no one objecting to the marriage.

Hence, on January 14, 2001, after having "read the banns" on three consecutive Sundays, Hawkes presided at the double wedding of Elaine and Anne Vautour and of Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell.

When the provincial officials refused to recognize the marriages, MCC Toronto sued, alleging religious discrimination as well as sexual orientation discrimination. Eight other couples who had been denied marriage licenses by the City of Toronto joined the case.

A favorable decision came down in July 2002, when a three-judge panel on the Ontario Superior Court found that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Justice Harry LaForme wrote, "The exclusion of same-sex couples serves no pressing, nor even legitimate, government objectives . . . . The restriction against same-sex marriage is an offense to the dignity of lesbians and gays because it limits the range of relationship options available to them. The result is they are denied the autonomy to choose whether they wish to marry. This in turn conveys the ominous message that they are unworthy of marriage."

The couples were unable to get marriage licenses or certificates immediately, however, because Justice Heather Forster Smith suspended the ruling for two years to give Parliament time to rewrite the legal definition of the word "marriage." Meanwhile, the government appealed the decision.

This was the case in which the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled on June 10, 2003. Writing collectively, a three-judge panel criticized the government's case for restricting marriage to heterosexuals, calling their arguments full of stereotypes and "circular reasoning." They further stated that "the couples are not seeking to abolish the institution of marriage. They are seeking access to it" and proceeded to give them that access by changing the phrase "one man and one woman" in the definition of "marriage" to "two persons." The change went into effect immediately.

After the Ontario ruling Prime Minister Jean Chrétien proposed legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country. After many delays and much discussion, Bill C-38, the authorizing legislation, eventually passed on July 19, 2005 and became law the next day. The bill passed on a vote of 158 to 133 in the House of Commons.

The law, which was bitterly opposed by the Conservative Alliance Party, was supported primarily by members of the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the New Democratic Party. By the time of the victory in Parliament all of the provinces and territories except Alberta, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut had already adopted laws enabling gay men and lesbians to marry.

Public debate on the issue of same-sex marriage took a different course in Canada than it has in the United States, where well-funded right-wing religious organizations have managed to put numerous anti-glbtq proposals on state ballots and have mobilized voters to pass discriminatory legislation and to enshrine discrimination in state constitutions. While some Canadian groups of the religious right, including Focus on the Family (Canada), supported largely by Americans, were vocal in their opposition to equal marriage rights, they are relatively small compared to their United States counterparts and have considerably less political influence, except perhaps in Alberta, the most conservative of the Canadian provinces.

In Canada, the fiercest religious opposition to same-sex marriage came not from evangelical Christians but from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who threatened to penalize Roman Catholic members of Parliament who voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Testifying before a Senate committee, the Archbishop of Montreal also declared that children of same-sex marriages could not be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church.

In contrast, the United Church of Canada in 2003 voted overwhelmingly at its annual conference to endorse same-sex marriage and lobbied forcefully for its adoption.

The premier of Alberta threatened to use the "notwithstanding clause" of the Charter to defy any marriage equality ruling by the courts or even Parliament, but those threats turned out to be demagogic grandstanding.

However, even after Parliament voted in favor of marriage equality in 2005, the battle was not over. In 2006, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper formed a minority Conservative Alliance government, he announced that his party would revisit the question of same-sex marriage despite predictions by Constitutional law experts that repeal of the same-sex marriage law would result in legal chaos.

In December 2006, Harper kept his promise by introducing a bill that would have directed the government to prepare a bill to repeal the same-sex marriage law while at the same time allowing those marriages already conducted to stand and to permit civil unions. Widely perceived as a sop to the Conservative Alliance's religious base, the proposal was soundly defeated on a vote of 123 to 175. Shortly after the vote, the Prime Minister announced that the matter was settled and would not be reopened.

In the ten years since the first same-sex marriages in Canada, support for marriage equality and for glbtq rights generally has grown. At the time of the first marriages in 2003, a majority of Canadians were opposed to equal marriage rights. A recent poll shows that in 2013 only 18% of Canadians oppose marriage equality.

The video below, from TVOntario, gives a quick overview of how marriage equality became a reality in Canada.

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