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social sciences

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In 2005 Canada became the fourth country to recognize same-sex marriages. The milestone victory for glbtq rights was long in coming and hard-won, but it established Canada as a leader in the struggle for equality. Canada's commitment to equal justice for its citizens sharply distinguishes it from its giant neighbor to the south and has served as an inspiration to the equal rights movement in the United States.

First Nations and Colonial Period

The First Nations in what is now Canada held a variety of views regarding sexuality and the roles of men and women in their societies. People who adopted the clothing or traditional jobs of the opposite sex were in some cases considered to belong to that gender and in others were seen as "two-spirited" and believed to belong to a third gender. The concept of gender was less linked to biology than to the role that a person chose to play in the life of his or her community.

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French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived at the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534, and the French established permanent settlements at Quebec in 1608 and at Montreal in 1642. The British secured territories in eastern Canada beginning in 1717. The two countries warred for control of the region, with Britain the victor in 1763. New France--the area now known as Quebec--was ceded to England. Some of the French residents of the area returned to France or relocated to French possessions in the Caribbean. Many went to Louisiana, where the displaced Acadiens eventually became known as Cajuns and contributed to the rich and diverse culture of the state.

Most of the francophone residents remained, however, and under the Quebec Act (1774) received rights to retain their own language, religion, and civil law. The differentiated status of Quebec has led to numerous political tensions in the course of Canadian history and eventually had repercussions in the glbtq rights movement when francophone organizations in Quebec were acting largely separately from the wider efforts of organizations in English-speaking Canada.

European settlers--the clergy in particular--made it their mission to impose their own views on the native groups whom they encountered. In the interest of "civilizing" the First Peoples and converting them to Christianity, Europeans made every effort to replace traditional belief systems with their own.

Criminal Prosecutions

With the establishment of European settlement came its judicial system. Among the first gay men to suffer under it was a young army drummer sentenced to death for a "crime against nature" in 1648. Jesuits in Montreal succeeded in getting the case transferred to Quebec, where the condemned man's sentence was commuted upon his agreement to take the job of executioner.

Another case occurred in 1691, when three soldiers were brought before the colony's Supreme Council on charges of . A lieutenant was convicted and banished from the colony, and his co-defendants were reprimanded.

In the society of the coureurs de bois, adventurous souls who journeyed west to trap and trade, homosexual activity was far from unknown but went largely ignored by authorities since the individuals involved were a rough-and-ready population generally removed from the life of European settlements.

In the mid-nineteenth century there were a number of prosecutions of men for same-sex sexual activity. Two soldiers were convicted of sodomy in 1842 and initially sentenced to death. The penalty was reduced, however, first to life imprisonment and then to a ten-year prison term. There is no record of a death sentence having been carried out in a sodomy case in Canada.

As Canada moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prosecutions for or sodomy continued, but practices were inconsistent across the country. In the homosocial communities of western loggers, miners, and railroad workers, romantic relationships between men were common. Relatively few criminal cases were pursued, but in those that were, penalties were sometimes severe and included prison terms of up to fifteen years and, as late as 1894, floggings.

Social Purity Movement

In the last decade of the nineteenth century Canada saw the rise of a "social purity" movement led by organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Women and Children and the Social and Moral Reform Council of Canada. Their goal was the strengthening of the traditional Canadian family, and their primary focus was on prostitution, promiscuity, divorce, and women working outside the home.

These groups also took a stand against homosexuality and campaigned successfully to have "gross indecency" between men added to the Criminal Code in 1892 to criminalize conduct not specifically covered under sodomy statutes. No similar laws were proposed to regulate the behavior of lesbians, perhaps because of the prevalent attitude that women had a far weaker sexual appetite than men.

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