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In 2003 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 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 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 Same-Sex Marriage

Public debate on the issue of same-sex marriage has taken a different course in Canada than in the United States. In the United States, 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), founded by the ultra-conservative American Reverend James Dobson, have been 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.

Sponsor Message.

Canadian evangelical Christians are far from a monolithic group: they belong to a variety of political parties, including the Liberal and the National Democratic parties, and are on the whole more moderate than evangelicals in the United States. Whereas conservative Christian groups in the U.S. often adopt confrontational tactics, those in Canada tend to be more willing to participate in dialogue. Bruce Clemenger, the president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, stated, "We're not trying to impose. We're trying to engage, to participate, to take Canada seriously."

Indeed, 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.

Public opinion on same-sex marriage is significantly different in Canada and the United States. In a 2004 poll 71 per cent of Canadians favored same-sex unions, although 32 per cent wanted them to be recognized by some term other than "marriage." By contrast, 47 per cent of United States respondents felt that same-sex marriage was "wrong and should never be lawful."

Moreover, Canadians seem generally content with the way that their courts have handled questions of glbtq rights. Pollster John Wright commented in 2004, "All of our polling has shown in the last decade, especially after 1982 and the introduction of the Charter of Rights, a continued and much higher level of support for the Supreme Court justices to make fair, reasonable and balanced decisions around issues like [same-sex marriage]."

Another factor influencing the debate about same-sex marriage is that Canada has become a very diverse nation, with numerous ethnic, cultural, and other groups. "We're a nation of minorities, and in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don't cherry-pick rights. A right is a right," declared Prime Minister Paul Martin in a 2005 interview.

Because of the diversity of their society, most Canadians value attitudes of tolerance and respect for the equality guaranteed by the Charter. Political scientist David Raeside noted, "It's very easy for Conservative politicians to burn themselves on this issue [i.e., same-sex marriage], because there is real resistance to appearing extreme" in matters such as Bill C-38.

Indeed, the Conservative Alliance party seems to have miscalculated public sentiment in its opposition to same-sex marriage. When one Conservative MP declared that homosexuality should be outlawed, many Canadians saw the party's opposition to same-sex marriage simply a reflection of intolerance. Similarly, the Alberta government's threat to invoke the "notwithstanding clause" in an attempt to evade its responsibilities under the Charter made Canadians in other parts of the country suspect that Conservatives might create a constitutional crisis simply because of .

Final Passage

The vote for passage of Bill C-38 was relatively close in the House of Commons--158 to 133--but overwhelming in the Senate, which affirmed the legislation 47 to 21 with 3 abstentions. Last-minute attempts by conservatives to insert amendments that would have sent the bill back to the House of Commons, then in recess, were parried. The often raucous debate ended on a dignified note with a Yukon Territory Liberal senator reading an e-mail from a constituent who said, "You have no idea what a difference it makes to the human spirit to know that you are treated equally under the law."

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