Experience Matters: Same-Sex Marriage in Canada

Returning home from Chicago last week where I had to face friends who were antagonistic toward the concept of same-sex marriage in the U.S.: this week I helped out with a presentation regarding the history of same-sex marriage in Canada. Dr. Paul Genest is now Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Cabinet Office and Associate Secretary of the Cabinet. Among other past activities, he has assisted in the passage of national same-sex marriage approval across the country. In this hour-long presentation he described the events that led to the beginning of LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) equality in our realm.

I found his description of the process particularly interesting. It was all based on our “Charter of Rights and Freedoms”, entrenched in our Constitution of 1982. Yes: ours is quite recent, stemming back only to when I was in high school. The original wording of the Charter did not include sexual orientation as a protected status, but it has since been read into section 15, which was left to be specifically broad so that it did not limit the protections provided. In the 30 years since the document was written, culture has changed. Such changes were expected by those who wrote our Constitution and they provided a means by which they can be absorbed and reflected in legislation.

In 2005, Bill C-38 was passed, which “defines civil marriage as the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others, thus extending civil marriage to conjugal couples of the same sex” (Parliament of Canada)

I took a series of pictures (now on my flickr site) of the event. Included are several of the slides Dr. Genest presented, if only because I wanted to remember his points. He described several of the court cases which slowly leaned further and further toward the goal. Two points were particularly well-made: or perhaps they were just significant to me, so I remembered them. One was that they went through quite a bit of discussion about whether “civil unions” were sufficient to provide equality regarding marriage to homosexual couples. They decided it was not: that if only because of the symbolic nature of the social connection to marriage, it was important to provide full equality through a redefinition of the institution. At the same time, though, the primary perspective through which they could provide this redefinition was (and is) civil.

The state did not presume to be able to “force” religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages against their will. Religion is also protected under the Charter. I thought this was an excellent point, since for me it was set against the backdrop of Founder’s Week at Moody Bible Institute, last week. One of the first presentations at my old school included a diatribe against same-sex marriage. The speaker tried to generate fear in the audience, equating the rise of same-sex marriage to “hostility” and “persecution” experienced by churches in the first century. Not only are the two unrelated in any perception of historical events (except that generated by conservative propaganda): the U.S. would undoubtedly follow a path similar to Canada, allowing churches who insisted on discrimination a way to avoid the law.

Part of what Dr. Genest described was the rapid change in perception that marks our time and our culture. In 1997, there was 63% opposition to the idea of same-sex marriage. In 2006, less than a decade later, there was 59% support. I hope that this can give some hope to people in other nations; through education and compassion, people can move quickly to accept new ideas. Proposals that were once considered threatening can be recognized for the value they offer to society, if given just a bit of time.

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