Toronto Star

Wednesday, June 9, 1999

MPs tie the knot on marriage

It's a union of two sexes, they affirm

By Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - By a 216-55 vote, the House of Commons last night agreed to uphold the definition of marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.

The motion explicitly excludes ``all others'' from the definition of marriage.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan called the debate unnecessary, saying no court decision or government policy proposed any extension of the right to marry to same-sex couples.

But the Reform party used one of its last days in the parliamentary session, when the official opposition can set the agenda, to force a debate and vote.

The party's family critic, Eric Lowther, argued a clear statement by Parliament was necessary to offset confusion over a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

In the case of M and H, the high court ruled same-sex common-law couples deserved the same entitlements under family law - specifically alimony payments - as straight common-law couples.

The debate, which lasted hours, ranged from the thoughtful to the defensive, and saw MPs accuse each other of playing hot-button politics.

McLellan, dismissing the need for a vote, said: ``The definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is found in the common law of our country and . . . the definition is also found in the civil law of this country. Marriage is a union between one man and one woman, that is clear.''

Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos (Ahuntsic), McLellan's parliamentary secretary, called the debate ``despicable'' and part of a ``continuing attempt by the Reform Party to fear-monger or to pit Canadians against each other.''

The government is, nonetheless, looking at ways to bring various federal laws in line with court rulings that dealt with the extension of benefits and obligations to same-sex common-law partners. Its recent Public Service Pension Bill recognized same-sex partnerships for the purposes of access to pension benefits.

Lowther and other Reform members challenged the government's commitment to the traditional definition of marriage, and praised heterosexual unions as the institution upon which families are built.

``With the capacity for natural heterosexual intercourse as an essential element, Mr. Speaker, marriage provides a healthy biological design for procreation,'' Lowther said.

``Other types of relationships are technically incomplete.''

Lowther also contrasted children of heterosexual families with children who suffer the ``the gender-deprived parenting of same-sex relationships,'' suggesting children of straight couples grow up to behave better than children of gay couples.

And as much as McLellan moved to reassure the Commons that the traditional notion of marriage was not under threat, many Liberal MPs couched their support of the motion more along the lines of Reform's pro-family position.

Mississauga South MP Paul Szabo, associated with what many view as the Liberals' ``family values'' caucus, said the traditional definition of marriage discriminates in a positive way. ``It discriminates in favour of the family and heterosexual couples,'' he said.

``Membership has its privileges,'' he said, citing the increased entitlement to property rights under family law that married couples enjoy.

Wentworth-Burlington MP John Bryden endorsed the ``rights of children to heterosexual parents.''

But Conservative House Leader Peter MacKay suggested the Reform Party was trying to ``raise the hackles of divisiveness'' not only among MPs in the House of Commons, but among people across the country, for political gain.

``There is a sense of paranoia that the courts will betray us,'' MacKay said.

``I don't believe the institution of marriage is in jeopardy.''

His comments were echoed by New Democratic and Bloc Québécois members.

Peter Mancini (Sydney-Victoria), NDP justice critic and a lawyer who formerly practised family law, warned: ``If this debate is really about fear of extending benefits to a same-sex couple, that's a different debate altogether.''

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