Mr. Speaker, if the flood of petitions and letters to my office over the past six months is any indication, Bill C-38, the same sex marriage bill, is by far the most important bill that will be dealt with by the 38th Parliament.
I have received about five times as much mail on this subject as on any other that I have dealt with in my four years as a member of Parliament. I have received many thousands of signatures on petitions in the constituency. For example, last week I presented nine such petitions to the House, and this week I have a further eight petitions that I am ready to submit. As members can see from the size of this pile, there are many hundreds of signatures on these petitions. As well, of course, I listen to many of my colleagues on all sides of the House presenting one petition after another, which is a very strong indication of the depth of interest expressed by Canadians on this issue.
Another sign of the depth of interest and commitment is the number of letters that are received and that are individual handwritten letters, letters from people who, although they are constituents, are not regular correspondents. People have been moved to write to me on this issue when they have written on no other issue. That is a signal to me of the depth of their interest in and commitment on this issue.
It was my practice in the 37th Parliament, that is, the one that sat from 2000 to 2004, to seek instruction from the electorate in my riding as to how to vote on key legislation via a mechanism that we refer to in the constituency as a constituency referendum.
I have conducted constituency referenda in which I asked constituents, by means of a mail-out ballot to all households in the riding, how to vote at final reading on, among other things, the species at risk act, which was Bill C-5 in the 37th Parliament, and the anti-terrorism act, Bill C-36 in the 37th Parliament. I have asked about whether to opt in or out of the MPs' annual $20,000 pay increase and also about how the riding boundaries of my then riding of Lanark--Carleton ought to be redrawn so that I could submit to the Electoral Boundaries Commission a submission that accurately reflected the community of interest as expressed by my constituents.
My party leader, the Leader of the Opposition, is a democrat, which means a lot to me because I am of course the shadow cabinet critic for democratic reform. He is a democrat. He strongly supports the right of MPs, including members of the shadow cabinet, to vote their consciences or to vote the collective consciences of the people they represent. That is why three members of our shadow cabinet are able to vote for this bill without fear of sanction, reprisal or losing their posts.
This contrasts dramatically with the Liberal benches, where no such freedom is available to members of the cabinet. I am also the critic for FedNor, the federal agency for regional economic development in northern Ontario. My opposite number in the Liberal cabinet, the minister for FedNor, has indicated very strongly that he personally is opposed to same sex marriage and is opposed to this legislation. He has been faced with a choice between resigning his post or abdicating his conscience. Unfortunately, he seems to have chosen to abdicate his responsibility to his conscience in choosing to fall in line with the government.
How many others have done so without at least speaking openly as he has done I do not know, but certainly there is very little in the way of democracy on that side of the House and on something that is the most important issue in the minds of many of the constituents of many of the members opposite, and of course also in the minds of many of the members opposite themselves, as it is in the minds of so many opposition members of Parliament.
The same lack of freedom to follow one's conscience or the conscience of one's constituents is even more evident in the New Democratic Party, where one member, the member for Churchill, in northern Manitoba, has essentially been knuckled under, read the riot act and told she must vote the way her party leader tells her to, without regard for her personal conscience or for the will of her constituents.
As our party's critic on democracy, I am proud of the courageous and democratic position adopted by our leader, but also of the democratic position adopted by our party, the Conservative Party, at its March policy convention in Montreal. I want to read from our policy platform a policy that was adopted in Montreal at our March convention. It states:
On issues of moral conscience, such as abortion, the definition of marriage, and euthanasia, the Conservative Party acknowledges the diversity of deeply held personal convictions among individual Party members and the right of Members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultations with their constituents and to vote freely.
My intention personally has been to vote against this bill at second reading and to conduct a constituency referendum to determine how I should vote at third reading.
At second reading a bill is being approved or rejected in principle. As such, it is the stage of the bill's life where it is most appropriate for a member of Parliament to vote his or her conscience. My conscience dictates that I cannot support a bill that fails to provide adequate protection for religious freedom when such protection could easily have been included in the text of the bill.
I have largely based my political career on the defence of religious freedom. My very first statement in the House of Commons, as a new member of Parliament, was the defence of the freedom of religion of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. When I turned to my constituents to ask how to vote on the Anti-terrorism Act and ultimately when I broke ranks with most members of my party, and with the government of course, in order to vote against the bill, I was primarily motivated by the unwarranted restrictions that the bill was placing on freedom of religion which I believe set a very dangerous precedent in this country.
Freedom of religion that is nominally protected in clause 3 of the same sex bill is quite frankly a fictitious protection of freedom of religion. It is a section that Liberal members will cite constantly. Let me read what it says because it is revealing when the text is read. We realize how hollow this protection of freedom of religion really is. Clause 3 of the bill says:
It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.
There are two things to note about this. First, which my hon. colleague from Okanagan—Coquihalla so clearly identified, this does not take care of all of the other impositions on freedom of religion, of many other actors in society that are not contained within the wording of this section, such as people who serve as commissioners of marriage who find their personal conscience violated.
It would be no great effort to find someone who finds it in accordance with his or her personal conscience to perform a same sex marriage as opposed to leaving it, requiring that all people who are commissioners of marriage must be willing to do so should the condition present itself. That is just unreasonable. It provides no extra rights to a same sex couple, but it takes away a fundamental and profound right to those who find that it is not in accordance with their personal religious or philosophical beliefs.
That provision could be taken care of by provincial law. It cannot be taken care of by federal law, but the federal government could have engaged in negotiation with the provinces to ensure those kinds of protections are built into provincial law. It has made no such effort and in fact is standing by while the opposite starts to happen. There are many other instances that my colleague cited, but I will not go through them all now.
The other thing to note about this clause is that in the draft of the bill, the earlier version that was submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada, an almost identical provision was written into clause 2 of that draft law except that it did not have the wording “it is recognized” at the beginning. Clause 3 states that “It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages--”.
The inclusion of those words makes this a purely declaratory provision. It has no weight whatsoever. It should be up in the very long preamble to the bill because it has no weight in court. The reason it has no weight in court, even written as the original clause 2 of the prior bill was, is because the court said it can have no weight. It is ultra vires; it is outside of federal jurisdiction.
The solemnization of marriage under section 92 of the Constitution is a provincial responsibility. So putting this in the bill is disingenuous. It should not be given any weight. In fact, it should not even be in the text of the bill.
At third reading my intention is to go to my constituents and ask them how I ought to vote. Some people feel there is a contradiction between voting one's conscience and vote consulting one's constituents.
I want to indicate here that I heartily disagree with this bill. People know where I personally stand, particularly on the issue of freedom of religion. However, it would be arrogant of me to suggest to my voters, to my constituents, that on an issue of such great importance my conscience is somehow superior to the consciences of each of the 113,000 people I represent in the House of Commons. That is not the case. I am proud of them. I am proud of the good sense and conscientious, thoughtful and general sentiments that have been expressed over and over again in the hundreds of letters and many petitions that I have received on this subject, and that I have taken many hours to read and review personally.
If all members of Parliament of all parties showed the same good sense, goodwill, openness and respect that my constituents, and the constituents of all members, have shown, this debate would be a much more civilized debate than it has turned out to be so far.