Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Legislating acceptance

With the passage of Bill C-38 in the House of Commons last night, Canada is about to become one of only four countries to recognize same-sex marriage. (The Netherlands and Belgium already do so, while the Spanish parliament is set to give the go-ahead on June 30.) The Prime Minister and Jack Layton have argued that same-sex marriage is a human right guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Stephen Harper has argued that civil unions, but not "marriage", is what the Charter requires, and believes that the Supreme Court would likely accede to Parliament's will in this matter. The two positions can be found in Hansard for February 16, 2005, and are worth reading. In allowing a free vote for Liberals, Paul Martin was trying to have it both ways: he was recognizing that there is a deep division in the country and within his party on this issue, while using the Charter argument as a shield to deflect criticism of the legislation. ("The Charter made me do it!") Jack Layton was more consistent, arguing that you don't have free votes on matters of fundamental human rights.

I'm not convinced that attaching the word "marriage" to civil-union legislation is a matter of human rights. A prospective father who claimed it was his fundamental human right to be granted "maternity" leave (and not "paternity" leave, even with the same provisions) would be laughed out of court. Same-sex "marriage" is not as much about recognizing an alleged human right as it is about social acceptance. Gilles Duceppe got it right when he said the legislation was not merely about law; it was about citizenship, and that its passage would be "sending a very strong message" about justice and fraternity. This is the often-unspoken subtext of this debate. Parliament has just declared that homosexuality is socially accepted in this country -- by a vote of 158 to 133. There's a massive contradiction there. Passage of Bill C-38 will not make the issue go away, but I expect that the passage of time will.

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