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Wednesday, June 09, 1999

Reform party can't get Liberals to bite
Gay-marriage motion ignites firestorm instead

Sheldon Alberts
National Post

Reform MP Eric Lowther

Eric Lowther's challenge to Parliament was simple and straightforward. The Calgary Reform MP, fearing a judicial assault on the legal definition of marriage, yesterday asked the House of Commons to affirm "that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

That Mr. Lowther and his Reform colleagues would even launch the debate in Parliament suggested they believed the answer from the Liberals would be no.

Reform MPs would never admit it, but at some level -- their most partisan level -- many of them likely hoped the government's answer would be no. The political opportunities would be endless.

Unfortunately for them, however, the drama ended early.

Less than an hour into yesterday's debate -- at 11:05 a.m., to be exact -- Canada's justice minister announced the Liberal government planned to vote in favour of the Reform motion, for the compelling reason that the party's definition of marriage matched -- word for word -- the common-law definition that has been guiding Canada since 1866.

"We, on this side, agree that the institution of marriage is a central and important institution in the lives of many Canadians," Anne McLellan said.

"This government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage or legislating same-sex marriage . . . That kind of misunderstanding of the intention of this government should be corrected."

So there. If Reform's goal was intended to expose a Liberal agenda to legitimize same-sex marriage, the strategy failed.

The Commons backed the heterosexual definition of marriage 216-55 in a vote late last evening.

But parliamentary debates don't just stop when the outcome of a vote is decided -- there was seven hours of debate scheduled for the motion. What followed Ms. McLellan's declaration was as much a debate on the motives of Reform's marriage motion as it was about the substance of that motion.

Because of Supreme Court of Canada decisions like the recent M v. H case, which redefined spouse to, in some circumstances, include same-sex couples, Mr. Lowther said "it is reasonable to assume" that the courts would strike down the opposite sex definition of marriage.

Mr. Lowther, his Reform colleagues and even some Liberals argued that reaffirming the definition of marriage was a positive initiative designed to support an institution under siege by courts.

But to Svend Robinson, the New Democrat MP and gay-rights activist, to Ms. McLellan and to Tory MPs, the motion betrayed an undercurrent of homophobia among its sponsors.

Peter MacKay, the Tory House leader, accused Reform of launching the debate for "crass political gain."

"We are dealing with conflict where you find it. In fact, this is an attempt to seek out conflict on a moral issue," he said.

"We are not against anyone. We are simply affirming that marriage is an important institution to Canadians . . . a unique institution and relationship that involves the union of a man and a woman," countered Mr. Lowther, who has been married to his wife, Colleen, for 24 years.

The Calgary MP made it clear he believes heterosexual marriage is superior to other dependent relationships.

"Marriage provides a healthy biological design for procreation. Other types of relationships are technically incomplete," Mr. Lowther said. "Marriage provides children with parental fullness. Versus the gender-deprived parenting of same-sex relationships."

Mr. Robinson called the remark an "appalling attack" on gay couples and said it was proof of Reform's anti-gay attitudes.

"The real agenda is that the Reform party not only doesn't believe in the equality of gay and lesbian relationships but doesn't believe in equality for gays and lesbians, period," he said, reminding the Commons that the party voted against including homosexuals in the Canadian Human Rights Code.

"The fact is that gay and lesbian people also enter into committed, loving, lifelong relationships. I need to ask the honourable member, how is it any threat to heterosexual marriage to recognize and affirm our relationships as well?" Mr. Robinson said.

"For those gay and lesbian people who seek to marry, why shouldn't that right be extended to them?"

Mr. Robinson backed up his harsh talk about Reform by voting against the motion.

More puzzling was the reaction to the motion by some Liberal MPs.

Ms. McLellan established early on that the government supported the strict definition proposed by Reform. Notwithstanding her party's support, Eleni Bakopanos, parliamentary secretary to Ms. McLellan, said the motion betrayed a lack of tolerance for others.

Other Liberals shared the Reform concerns. Paul Szabo, MP for Mississauga-South, said the Reform motion might be seen as discrimination, but he believes it is positive discrimination that seeks to protect an institution that has always been the domain of heterosexual couples.

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