Northern enlightenment: Canada has something to teach the U.S. when it comes to equal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships – Marriage
It wasn’t exactly a scientific poll. When Quebec justice minister Paul Begin huddled with advisers about a sweeping civil union bill that would allow same-sex couples in the Canadian province all the legal protections of marriage, he turned to an unusual source to gauge public opinion: soap operas.
“We have our own shows that are very popular here,” he tells The Advocate during an interview in his office in the Palais de Justice in Montreal. “Same-sex couples show affection and kiss. I asked everyone, and it turned out that nobody had said a word against this. There was no problem with it. To me, it was a sign that the population was ready to accept the civil union law.”
Begin’s hunch turned out to be remarkably prescient. In June the legislation, which grants same-sex couples full adoption and parental rights (and also allows opposite-sex couples a less binding alternative to marriage), sailed through Quebec’s assembly unanimously. Public opinion polls showed that a majority of Quebec’s 7 million residents support not only the civil union legislation but same-sex marriage as well.
“We would hope that [this] bill will be used by the rest of the world,” Begin says. “But we are also realistic. We know that most people are not like the people in Quebec. We are an open society. We don’t want to quarrel with different minority groups.”
Canada as a whole soon could be forced to go a step further than Quebec with regard to legal recognition of same-sex relationships. On July 12 the Ontario superior court gave the federal government two years to legalize same-sex marriage, declaring that Canada’s ban on gay marriage violates the national constitution. Although the Canadian government is appealing the ruling–a legal process that could take three to five years–most observers believe it is only a matter of time before Canada becomes the first non-European country to recognize same-sex marriage.
How likely is it that these progressive attitudes in Canada will have a positive influence on its neighbor to the south? They can’t help but have some effect, says Evan Wolfson, project director of the Freedom to Marry Collaborative, a New York City-based gay rights group. “The future is clearly the Canadian way,” he says. “The United States can’t lag behind its major trading partner–the nation with the longest common border, its closest international ally. With the increasing trade and travel between the nations, how can we avoid going the same direction? If nothing else, we can point to Quebec and say, `See, the sky has not fallen.'”
Nonetheless, the battle for same-sex marriage in the United States is sure to be far more grueling. In the American system, marriage laws are determined by the states. In Canada it is a federal issue, allowing the nation’s supreme court or federal parliament to wipe away all legal barriers with a stroke of the pen.
Change in the states tends to be more gradual but no less certain than in Canada. “We have seen a number of radical changes in marriage law here, including [the legalization of] divorce and mixed marriages,” Wolfson explains. “Each time, opponents predicted catastrophe, and it didn’t happen. These same people are the ones now screaming about [gay] marriage.”
To outsiders, the ease with which Quebec and, to a lesser extent, Canada as a whole have embraced legal equality for gay couples is shocking. After all, the gay rights movement did not begin in earnest in Canada until the late 1970s, nearly a decade after it did in the United States. The Canadian equivalent of the Stonewall uprising took place in October 1977, when submachine gun–toting police officers raided a downtown Montreal gay bar called Truxx and arrested 146 people. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, and two months later legislators in Quebec added provisions banning discrimination based on sexual orientation to the provincial charter of human rights and freedoms. Quebec is the second province, after Nova Scotia, to offer gay and lesbian couples the option of being joined in a civil union.
The key to Quebec’s liberalism may lie in the its distinctive cultural characteristics. The predominantly Catholic province, which boasts a long tradition of seeking consensus in human rights measures, lacks a well-organized right wing to oppose gay rights measures.
“Of course, there were those who said, `Homosexuality is perverse and a sickness,'” says Michele Lamquin-Ethier, justice critic for the Liberal Party of Quebec and an ardent supporter of the civil union law. “We tried to be delicate with them and show them why they were wrong. But they were not delicate with us. They were so extreme, people stopped listening to them.”
Even the Catholic Church put up little resistance. “Catholic leaders came in [to legislative hearings] and said why they were opposed to the bill,” says Begin, who is Catholic. “But the testimony of people who believe in the bill was so sincere that it was impossible for the church to say that [same-sex couples] don’t exist and don’t need the same protections everyone else does.”
Also significant is the decline in popularity of conventional marriage. Today, more than 50% of the children in Quebec are born out of wedlock, and many heterosexual couples are seeking less-formal legal protections than marriage for their relationships. Quebec’s civil union law was crafted with this trend in mind. If both partners agree, unions can be dissolved at a notary’s office. Marriages, on the other hand, can be dissolved only by a far more cumbersome legal process.
“The good thing is that we are moving toward a society where what binds couples together is love, not a marriage contract,” says Lamquin-Ethier. “[But] we don’t know if this will bring less stability for our society.”
One thing is certain, though: Quebec’s openness can’t help but strengthen its already booming gay tourism industry. The Montreal Tourism Bureau estimates that over 1 million gay people will visit the city this year, bringing in between 6% and 10% of the $2 billion (Canadian) spent by tourists in the city every year.
“I don’t pay attention to those numbers,” Begin says, laughing, when asked about the economic implications of the civil union law. “That is for the tourism people to figure out. We only paid attention to what was right.”
Yet with such an obvious financial incentive, it is little surprise that the province is boasting about its commitment to gay rights. Shortly after passage of the civil union law, the government paid for a full-page ad touting itself in several daily newspapers. The ad featured three smiling same-sex couples, including one with young children.
Quebec’s civil union bill also is being celebrated by the province’s separatist movement, which takes pride in thumbing its nose at the federal government. The director of the Quebec Gay and Lesbian Coalition, Claudine Ouellet, who supports the province’s independence from Canada, calls Quebec an “oasis of equality. We are not perfect yet, but we are working on it.” Ouellet dismisses federal opponents of civil unions as “morons” and promises that all opposition will eventually “wither and die.”
Yet, as in the United States, opposition still exists in Canada. The federal government has even made noises about challenging the civil union law in court. “Traditionally, the federal government has been the leader on human rights issues,” says Real Menard, an openly gay member of the Canadian parliament. “But on this question some of the provinces are becoming the leaders, bringing along the federal government kicking and screaming. We are going to keep pulling it along.”
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