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Thursday » September 18 » 2003

Same-sex challenge defeated 137-132
19 Liberals among 30 MPs who didn't vote
Janice Tibbetts and Sean Gordon 
CanWest News Service

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

By a razor-thin margin, Parliament embraced same-sex marriage Tuesday by rejecting a 137-year-old definition that preserves the institution for "one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

MPs voted 137-132 against a Canadian Alliance motion to maintain the traditional meaning despite a string of court rulings that allow gays and lesbians to wed.

The result is non-binding, but it is considered significant because it is the first test of a federal bill that would make Canada only the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage after Belgium and the Netherlands.

A noted No vote was cast by Liberal MP Paul Martin, who is expected to replace retiring Jean Chretien as prime minister early next year.

"This is an issue I've had to wrestle with and I must say this has not been an easy decision," said Martin, a devout Catholic whose religion strongly opposes gay marriage.

"What has certainly tipped the balance as far as I'm concerned is the decision that the courts have taken is that this is a rights issue and you cannot discriminate."

Martin also said he believes marriage is a strong institution that will not be eroded by including homosexuals.

The vote capped a bitter political summer within the Liberal party, where dozens of reluctant backbenchers vocally opposed the federal bill. In the end, 53 of them ignored last-minute lobbying from Chretien and Justice Minister Martin Cauchon to side with the government.

"You can no longer bully the caucus and you have to persuade them. And if you cannot persuade them, you're going to have some difficulty with legislation," said John McKay, a Liberal MP from Scarborough, Ont.

Cauchon, however, appeared undaunted by the fault lines in the Liberal caucus.

"We've won the vote, I think it's one of confidence in the process we've taken," he said.

"Society evolves and tonight you have a good demonstration."

The Alliance failed in a last-minute bid to make its motion more palatable by removing a contentious clause that would allow Parliament "to take all necessary steps" to keep the traditional definition of marriage.

A vote to soften the motion failed 135-134 after the Speaker broke a tie for the first time in 40 years.

Chretien had used the clause as a strong reason for his party to vote against the motion.

He warned it would amount to authorizing Parliament to use the Constitution's "notwithstanding clause," which allows politicians to override court rulings dealing with the Charter of Rights.

The clause is unpopular in Liberal circles because it is viewed as a rejection of the charter, which the party helped bring in 21 years ago when Chretien was justice minister.

Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper speculated his party may have secured enough votes to win if it had succeeded in its attempts to water down the motion.

All 63 Canadian Alliance MPs voted to keep marriage the way it is.

They were joined by 53 of the 150 Liberals who turned up to vote, 10 of 14 Tories, three of 23 Bloc Quebecois, and three of four independents.

About 30 MPs did not vote, some to duck a political headache.

Same-sex marriage opponent Bev Desjarlais, for instance, stayed away to avoid breaking ranks with the NDP.

"We know that the opinion of the country is divided, and I think that's reflected somewhat in the vote," said Harper.

"The other thing to note is we didn't win because some of the well-known supporters of our position didn't show up to vote as well, and I think there's going to have to be some accountability."

Chretien voted for an identical Alliance motion four years ago, as did most Liberal MPs, including Cauchon.

That vote passed easily by a margin of 216-55.

While the Alliance accused the Liberals of changing their political stripes with ease, many government members said that they switched sides because they have been swayed by court rulings.

Courts in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have struck down the federal ban on same-sex marriage as a violation of the equality guarantees in the charter.

The bill has been sent to the Supreme Court of Canada for a legal opinion on whether it passes constitutional muster before it is introduced in the Commons.

The traditional definition of marriage is based on an 1866 court ruling in England, in which Lord Penzance wrote: "I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may . . . be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."

Despite Martin's vote, he refused to commit to the bill legalizing same-sex marriage should he become prime minister.

"There are a number of options that have been put on the table," he told reporters.

Martin said that a solution must comply with the charter, which rules out a "separate but equal" regime for gays and lesbians.

Also See: "Well, bring on the gay rights election.", Don Martin, Page A4,; Where Alberta MPs stand A4; Tolerance wins youth vote A5; Will backlash dog election? A5; Editorial A14; Columnists square off A15

© Copyright  2003 Calgary Herald

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