Ottawa Citizen

Sunday June 13, 1999

Justice minister backs Reform: Marriage is union of man and woman

Tim Naumetz
The Ottawa Citizen

Justice Minister Anne McLellan surprised some MPs yesterday by supporting a Reform motion declaring that the only legal marriage involves a man and a woman.

Ms. McLellan, while backing the extension of society's spousal benefits to same-sex partnerships, told the House the government is not prepared to extend the legal protection of marriage in the same way.

She was later accused by a leading gay-rights activist of dancing "to the Reform party's tune."

"A marriage is a union between one man and one woman," said Ms. McLellan, who did not speak to reporters to elaborate after her speech. "We on this side (of the Commons) agree that the institution of marriage is a central and important institution in the lives of many Canadians. Indeed, worldwide, it plays an important part in all society, second only to the fundamental importance of family."

Ms. McLellan said the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman is made clear through Canadian common law that stems from a century-old British court decision. Courts have upheld the definition despite guarantees of equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, she said.

The motion was tabled by Reform MP Eric Lowther and urged that the House "state that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

Outside the Commons, Canada's leading lobby group for gays and lesbians called Mr. Lowther's motion "insidious" and criticized Ms. McLellan for siding with the Reform MPs to support it. "I hadn't expected the minister and the government to dance to the Reform party's tune on this," said John Fisher, executive director of the lobby group Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere.

Bloc Quebecois MP Real Menard and NDP MP Svend Robinson, both openly gay, called the motion discriminatory. Mr. Menard questioned Mr. Lowther's motives because, Mr. Menard said, a minority of gays and lesbians are seeking legal recognition for gay marriages.

"We have no choice but to recognize it is discrimination against gay persons," said Mr. Menard, arguing same-sex couples who want to marry should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals.

But Mr. Lowther said Canadians are increasingly concerned about the status of marriage in light of recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada and by government measures that have extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples and entrenched legal protection against discrimination.

But other MPs accused Reform of presenting the motion to stir division and exploit the sensitive issue.

Winnipeg Liberal John Harvard said Reform MPs were trying to stir fear over recent advances by gays and lesbians seeking legal and administrative equality from the government and in the private sector.

"It's in their interest to spread fear," Mr. Harvard said. "It's called fear-mongering."

NDP MP Bev Desjarlais called the motion "despicable," while Conservative House Leader Peter MacKay accused Reform of tabling the motion for "crass" political gain.

"It is never difficult to find these issues that inflame passions," said Mr. MacKay who, like nearly every MP who took part in the debate from both sides of the House, said he supports the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Reform MPs accused the Liberals of betraying their own party members, because a recent Liberal party assembly passed a resolution supporting the extension of marriage recognition to gay couples. Government MPs said the resolution was only part of an internal party debate and not government policy.

The Liberals amended the motion to specify it referred only to areas of marriage covered by Parliament. The courts have shifted constitutional control over the actual process of marriage further to the provinces since Confederation, while the federal government has retained control primarily over divorce.