Mr. Speaker, this is a very important public policy issue and I am privileged to have the chance to enter the debate today. I am honoured to be the second speaker for the Conservative Party. I thank my fellow caucus members for their support. I also congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his forthright speech on Wednesday.
I am proud to be a member of a political party that respects rights and tradition and has taken an honest, moderate, compromise position in such an important public policy debate.
I have had the opportunity to listen not only to the initial debate on Bill C-38 but, most important, to listen to my constituents in West Edmonton, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain and Parkland county.
While opinions have varied, I continue to be impressed by the honesty, candour and care with which Canadians are approaching this debate. Canadians have been thoughtful on this issue and most have come to believe that a compromise position would be the best position that the Government of Canada could take. It is, in essence, the Canadian way.
The issue of same sex marriage is not about denying rights. It is not about jeopardizing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as the Prime Minister would like us to believe. It is a complex public policy issue and one which has an impact on every Canadian.
I would like to begin my comments on a personal note and say that when I think of the people in my life who I love, some of whom happen to be gay and lesbian, I know clearly, both in my heart and in my mind, that I would never support a public policy position that violated their rights and in any way violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Supreme Court of Canada has asked us to consider a range of ideas. As legislators, it is our responsibility to consider and represent the views of Canadians in this House.
The debate has been framed in a variety of ways and each adds to the complexity of our deliberations. Today I hope to address this debate in a manner that discusses the various ways Canadians have approached Bill C-38.
The debate has been framed, in terms of rights, within the framework of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; in terms of marriage and what it means legally, as well as within the context of historical tradition and as a social institution; and in terms of religion and the interplay between church and state, not just how religion affects politics but also in terms of how politics affects the activity of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples.
The debate has also been framed as one of competing interests, the, at times, different views of younger Canadians versus older Canadians, the supposedly different views of rural versus urban Canadians, and the alleged different views of people who come from different provinces. However the reality is that this debate is important to all of us, all generations, both sexes, across the country.
In my mind the debate is primarily about rights and recognition, and about how to best recognize the rights of homosexual couples within our society while at the same time upholding and respecting institutions that have great social importance to Canada, such as the traditional definition of marriage. In short, it is about responding and respecting the competing interests in this debate in a reasonable, compassionate and moderate way.
In my comments today I would like to touch upon a few subjects. First, I would like to review, not just the Supreme Court reference, but all the court cases that have brought us to where we are on the same sex marriage issue.
Second, I will focus on the main point of my address, which is that in any debate it is Parliament's job to find a compromise and consensus that defends rights and, specifically in this debate, offers recognition to homosexual couples and takes into account the views of Canadians.
Third, I would like to discuss the legislation that other countries around the world have brought forward after engaging in this very exercise that we are about to undertake. In addition, I will refer to the legislation Alberta brought forward two years ago to extend rights and privileges to same sex couples.
Finally, I would like to specifically focus on the very ways in which Canadians have discussed same sex marriage as a rights issue.
Marriage cases ruling in favour of same sex marriage began in 2002. In 2002, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman represented a charter infringement. La Cour supérieure du Québec also ruled that the characterization of marriage as a heterosexual institution represented a violation of charter equality rights.
In 2003, the British Columbia Court of Appeal reversed a lower court judgment that upheld the common law bar to same sex marriage.
On September 16, 2003, an opposition motion expressing Parliament's support for the traditional definition of marriage was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 137 to 132. It was only four years earlier, in June 1999, however, that the exact same motion passed, with large support from many Liberals for the traditional definition of marriage.
After several provincial courts had ruled that the traditional definition of marriage was unconstitutional, the Liberal government prepared draft legislation that would permit same sex marriages, but instead of allowing the House of Commons to vote on the legislation, the Liberals referred it to the Supreme Court and asked the following questions.
Question 1: Is the annexed Proposal for an Act respecting certain aspects of legal capacity for marriage for civil purposes within the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada? If not, in what particular or particulars, and to what extent?
Question 2: If the answer to question 1 is yes, is section 1 of the proposal, which extends capacity to marry to persons of the same sex, consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
Question 3: Does the freedom of religion guaranteed by paragraph 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protect religious officials from being compelled to perform a marriage between two persons of the same sex that is contrary to their religious beliefs?
In January 2004 the government referred an additional question to the Supreme Court. Question 4 asked the following: Is the opposite-sex requirement for marriage for civil purposes, as established by the common law and set out for Quebec in section 5 of the Federal Law-Civil Law Harmonization Act, No. 1, consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
The fourth question was an important question. The Prime Minister had hoped that the Supreme Court would return with the imperative that Parliament must pass a law sanctioning marriage for homosexual couples. However, the Supreme Court did not do that and mandated Parliament to examine, debate and potentially legislate on this issue.
In its decision released on December 9, 2004, the Supreme Court said that the federal government has the jurisdiction to redefine marriage to include same sex couples.
It also said that churches are protected under the Charter of Rights in maintaining the traditional definition of marriage, but that legislation that would specifically protect religious organizations is beyond the constitutional power of the federal government.
What this means is that the federal government determines the definition of marriage but the provinces determine how a couple can marry.
The court did not answer the question of whether the traditional definition of marriage in the common law violates the Charter of Rights. Instead of declaring the traditional definition of marriage unconstitutional, the court has made it clear that it is Parliament that must define the word marriage.
This is where we are today. We have received direction from the Supreme Court of Canada that if Parliament wants to change the definition of marriage it would be within our purview to do so. We are free to define it as a union between a man and a woman or as between any two persons. Either definition has been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.
However, the courts did not force the vote or the debate that is before us, because it did not compel Parliament to change the definition of marriage. It simply stated that if Parliament wanted to, it could. This is a political decision that the Liberal government has taken on its very own.
While the Liberals have attempted to shroud their politics by misquoting and misusing the language of rights, I, along with the Leader of the Opposition, will seek the moderate compromise that Canadians are asking for.
We may ask why a compromise is so important. Many members have suggested that deciding upon whether or not to change the definition of marriage is difficult; it involves issue of personal conscience, religion and the views of our constituents as well as perceptions of the traditions and institutions of our society.
Because of the difficulty of this issue, I am proud to be a member of a party that has allowed a free vote on this issue. It is an issue of personal conscience and one of accountability to my constituents, and it is important that members are granted the ability to vote in as free a manner as possible without the threat of recrimination by party leaders.
It is wise, and it is also decent, that this party has allowed a free vote. Nobody in this party finds themselves in an uncomfortable position due to this legislation. Members are accountable not to their party but to their own consciences and to their constituents. It is a position that I wish all members of the House could share.
Importantly, the majority of people who oppose this legislation favour the insurance and the protection of equal rights for homosexual couples and they favour formal state recognition of committed homosexual relationships.
So at some point we have to ask ourselves why the government is not following the lead of most Canadians and searching for a middle ground that will protect the rights of all Canadians equally, recognize homosexual unions and respect tradition at the same point. The government, after all, likes to talk about Canada's ability to broker resolutions. It likes to talk about Canadians as being the sort of people who search for compromise and search for the middle position.
Canadians have done that. The Leader of the Opposition has done that. The government, on the other hand, has labelled these Canadians intolerant and bigoted. This language is unhelpful, and the government is fighting the national consensus on this issue.
The government has refused to look beyond its own vision on this issue. It has refused to seek the middle ground, and in doing so, it has refused to take seriously the considerations and views of Canadians.
The Leader of the Opposition is the only leader in the House who has discussed the matter with Canadians and has searched for a compromise in order to give all Canadians a voice.
In December, the Leader of the Opposition announced three proposals for effectively considering the marriage question. These are as follows. The first proposal would retain the traditional definition of marriage. The second proposal would ensure that same sex couples are afforded equal spousal benefits. The third proposal would include substantive provisions in the legislation to protect not only religious organizations but also to protect public officials who have objections due to reasons of religion or conscience.
With regard to the first proposal, I am proud to be voting the wishes of my constituents, one of which is to support and maintain the traditional definition of marriage. I am also proud to be able to vote in favour of providing equal rights to gay and lesbian couples, something my constituents have also been clear in their support for.
My constituents reflect the majority of Canadians who believe in a balanced approach: legislation which accords equal benefits and status to same sex couples in a recognized union, with an understanding that to do this we do not need to change the definition of marriage.
There is no need or imperative to reject the middle ground put forward by the Leader of the Opposition. I support the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court has not said that we must change the definition of marriage. The Supreme Court has not said that the traditional definition of marriage is in violation of the charter. The Supreme Court has not said that recognition of same sex marriage as a union is in violation of the charter. The Supreme Court has said none of this despite the arguments put forward by the government.
With regard to the third proposal, by protecting the rights of religious institutions Parliament can support the rights of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples to recognize, perform and solemnize marriages on their own terms.
Parliament can ensure that churches have the right to privately and publicly preach their beliefs related to marriage. Parliament can ensure that justices of the peace and civil marriage commissioners are not forced to solemnize marriages against their own consciences. Parliament can also preserve the charitable and economic benefits that churches enjoy as public institutions and recognize the right of public officials to act in accordance with their own beliefs.
I know that these proposals will not make everybody happy. Some will want a strong endorsement of gay and lesbian marriage. Others will want a vote that recognizes traditional marriages only and with no recognition of gay and lesbian relationships whatsoever. Each of these positions is born of strong convictions, making compromise the only tenable position that we can take.
The need for a compromise stems from the need to reconcile the interests of societal beliefs, law and tradition in a manner that all the majority of Canadians would recognize as just. This should be Parliament's goal.
The position taken by the Leader of the Opposition is the compromise position. It is the moderate position and it accords with the general thoughts and beliefs of the majority of Canadians. While there are Canadians on both sides of this issue, we live in a society that prides itself on the ability to compromise and find solutions which take the concerns and positions of everyone into account. That is what we are attempting to do by putting forward a compromise position.
Some across the way would charge that if we do not change the definition of marriage we will in fact be denying rights to homosexual Canadians. Several European countries have shown that this is not the case.
A quick survey of countries in Europe shows that while the Netherlands and Belgium have adopted same sex marriage legislation, registered domestic partnerships are available in Sweden, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland and parts of Italy. Civil pacts are available in France. Finally, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Switzerland are considering introducing legislation to provide protections, rights and benefits to gay and lesbian individuals in committed relationships.
Thus, other nations, and more important, other western democratic and constitutional nations, have found ways to deal with this issue. Their solutions are middle ground solutions and they are accepted by a consensus of the population in those countries.
The questions of rights in the states I have mentioned above have been settled by the legislation and arrangements which govern same sex relationships. The laws that are in place in these European countries are similar to the amendments put forward by the Leader of the Opposition.
The Leader of the Opposition has also called attention to recent legal developments in New Zealand. In New Zealand, which does not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation, courts still ruled that the opposite sex requirement for marriage was not a basic human right.
Closer to home, the Government of Alberta has also found a new arrangement that both retains the traditional definition of marriage and provides benefits, rights and privileges to homosexual couples. Alberta's Adult Interdependent Relationships Act balances the desire to promote the concept of marriage as an institution and the need for fairness for those who choose non-marital but interdependent relationships.
In this arrangement, Alberta defends all human rights and provides non-married couples the benefits that couples in a traditional marriage enjoy, so it is clear that there are arrangements that can be designed to both protect rights and retain the definition of marriage as that between one man and one woman.
Today marriage is seen as an institution that involves a union between one man and one woman. Societal institutions are by their very nature the products of convention and they owe their existence to society's recognition of the importance they hold. Those who see same sex marriage as a right are attempting to change this institution.
However, given the competing interests within society, the differing outlooks that citizens bring to the political arena, and the often difficult decisions regarding competing visions of what our laws ought to be like, it is our obligation as legislators to find a middle ground.
The key distinction here is recognition. Since 1977 gay and lesbian Canadians have benefited from increasing legal and legislative measures which have ensured that they are afforded equal status in the eyes of the law. During the 1990s, gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships or in “marriage-like” relationships, to use the B.C. court's term, have seen an increase in the rights and benefits that they are afforded.
In short, by the beginning of the 21st century, gay and lesbian Canadians in committed relationships could not legally be denied practical spousal rights and benefits. In this sense, the rights debate has been solved.
The debate over allowing gays and lesbians to access the institution of marriage, on the other hand, has not been resolved.
As I said earlier, the Supreme Court stated that the definition of marriage is a parliamentary responsibility, meaning both that it is federal in jurisdiction and that it is up to Parliament to decide whether or not the institution of marriage should be changed to allow access to gay and lesbian couples.
While the court did not rebuke lower courts that declared the traditional definition of marriage to be unconstitutional, it also did not endorse the position that the current definition of marriage is unconstitutional.
By suggesting that Parliament should decide, the Supreme Court made an implicit statement about the difference between rights and recognition, namely, that courts exist to protect and uphold the rights of groups and individuals and Parliament exists to express the national will regarding how those rights will be enshrined in legislation and recognized.
Same sex marriage, in a nutshell, is a recognition issue. As stated earlier, the rights component of this debate has largely been resolved and few Canadians are of the mind to reverse those decisions. Their opinion reflects their belief in equality for all Canadians under the law. They merely want the word “marriage” to remain as the union between a man and a woman.
The rights issue has been settled and the equality provisions continue to be settled. Simply put, the law sees heterosexual relationships and same sex relationships as equally significant and equally able to access spousal rights and privileges. The Conservative Party supports this view.
The question, therefore, is not about rights or equality. It is about marriage and whether Canadians would like to change the definition of marriage. It is about how Canadians would like to recognize legally equal, committed same sex relationships.
It is up to Parliament to decide the manner in which these rights are recognized. We believe these rights should be recognized fully, and all of the rights of marriage ought to be formally recognized in civil unions.
However, I believe that we do need to find a compromise by recognizing committed relationships between gays and lesbians as civil unions and retaining the traditional definition of marriage.
The majority of the letters that I have received from my constituents ask me to vote to retain the traditional definition of marriage. The majority of those same letters also ask that I work to protect the human and spousal rights of gay and lesbian individuals and couples. I agree with this position.
During this debate the Liberals have attempted to hide their politics by invoking the language of rights and accusing our party of not believing in rights. This could not be further from the truth. The Conservative Party has approached this issue as one where a reasonable compromise can be found. We have spoken honestly with Canadians and it is my hope that the House follows our lead.
I am proud to work with my constituents on such an important issue. I am proud that I can vote freely on their behalf.