Canada became the third country to legalise gay marriage early today, as parliament passed landmark legislation allowing same-sex civil unions, despite strong opposition from Conservatives and religious leaders.
Although gay marriage is already legal in seven provinces, the Bill now grants all same-sex couples in Canada the same legal rights as those in traditional union between a man and a woman.
The Netherlands and Belgium are the only other nations that allow gay marriage nationwide.
The legislation, drafted by prime minister Paul Martin’s minority Liberal Party government, is expected to easily pass through the Liberal-dominated Senate and become federal law by the end of July.
It was the last major piece of legislation before parliament recessed for summer and comes on the first anniversary of Martin’s leadership.
Thirty-three of Martin’s Liberal MPs voted against the Bill and a Cabinet minister resigned yesterday over the contentious legislation. But enough allies rallied to support the Bill that has been debated for months.
Martin, a Roman Catholic, hailed the 158-133 vote as a necessary step for human rights and the protection of minorities.
“We are a nation of minorities,” Martin said. “And in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don’t cherry-pick rights. A right is a right and that is what this vote is all about.”
There are an estimated 34,000 gay and lesbian couples in Canada, according to government statistics.
Alex Munter, national spokesman for Canadians for Equal Marriage, which has led the debate in favour of the law, was triumphant after the vote. “The genius of Canada, almost unparalleled in the world, is built on shared identity, out of respect for each other,” he said.
Munter said it had been 30 years since the first homosexual couple applied for a marriage licence in Canada.
“This has been a long, arduous road,” he said. “Lesbians and gay people are your brothers and sisters, neighbours, friends and co-workers. At the end of the day, no argument in favour of exclusion can withstand what people see with their own eyes: that it is wrong to treat people that they care about in a way that diminishes their personal choice.”
Churches have expressed concern that their clergy would be compelled by law to perform same-sex ceremonies, with couples taking them to court or human rights tribunals if refused. The legislation, however, states that the Bill only covers civil unions, not religious ones, and no clergy would be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies unless they chose to do so.
The Roman Catholic Church, the predominant Christian denomination in Canada, vigorously opposed the legislation, as well as major Islamic and Sikh organisations whose members believe the law would rock the foundations of traditional family.
Charles McVety, a spokesman for Defend Marriage Canada and president of Canada Christian College, called the vote an “onerous breach of trust and the deconstruction of so much that is dear to our hearts”.
This is a big step from the statement by the Prime Minister Jean Chrétien on Same Sex Unions, Jun. 17, 2003:
"We will not be appealing the recent decision on the definition of marriage. Rather, we will be proposing legislation, that will protect the right of churches and religious organizations to sanctify marriage as they define it.
At the same time, we will ensure that our legislation includes and legally recognises the union of same sex couples. As soon as the legislation is drafted, it will be referred to the Supreme Court. After that, it will be put to a free vote in the House."
What a GREAT way to celebrate Canada Day!!