Madam Speaker,on this historic last day of debate in this House on Bill C-38, I am pleased to have the honour of speaking in favour of the civil marriage act.
The debate has been a long one. A full range of arguments both for and against the extension of civil marriage to same sex couples has been articulated and discussed in many forms, and not just in this House. It has also been in the legislative committee of the House, which recently re-examined the bill, and in the standing committee that discussed this question in 2003. The issue has also been discussed in the courts, in different jurisdictions, in the media, and of course in the public sphere.
I would like to use my time today to quickly review the legal framework of the bill for tonight's vote.
As the Minister of Justice pointed out this morning, the bill is organized around two very fundamental rights and freedoms in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The first is the charter protection of equality and minority rights, in other words, the extension of access to civil marriage to gays and lesbian couples. The second is the charter protection of religious freedom, in other words, the assurance that religious groups would remain free to follow their beliefs and make their own decisions about what marriage is within those beliefs, and that no religious official can be forced to perform marriages that are contrary to his or her beliefs. Both of these charter principles are fully respected and affirmed by this bill, which is rights protecting legislation.
Courts in eight provinces and one territory have already changed the law to extend equal access to civil marriage to same sex couples. Thousands of same sex couples are now legally married in this country. As a result, the decision now for the Parliament of Canada is not only whether to extend these rights, but whether to take away charter rights from a minority group.
Some Canadians have expressed concerns that the courts have made this decision rather than the elected Parliament. Although it is the court decisions that have changed the law, it remains up to Parliament to make the final decisions.
Under the Constitution, Parliament and the courts both have important and complementary roles. It is an important part of the courts' mandate, given to them by Parliament when the charter was passed democratically, to examine current laws to determine if they meet the requirements of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document that Parliament itself approved through a democratic process.
At the same time, Parliament is best situated to look at the complete picture in designing a Canada-wide approach that meets both the equality and freedom of religion guarantees of the charter.
I am a member of Parliament from Ontario where this has been the law for nearly two years now, and nothing is going to change in my province. Whether we vote one way or another, the law has already been changed in my province and in many other jurisdictions in Canada. It is critical that this Parliament take responsibility to act to provide a uniformity of law across our country, rather than leaving this to the courts alone any longer.
Many members have again indicated during the last days of debate that they would prefer that the legal recognition given to same sex unions be some term other than marriage, such as civil union. The Minister of Justice reminded us this morning that civil unions are not a workable option in a Canadian legal and constitutional framework. Although theoretically possible, creating a separate institution in addition to civil marriage must be done under provincial and territorial laws, not federal laws, and so cannot respect the right of same sex couples to equality without discrimination, meaning that it would still be in breach of the charter.
As the opposition has stated, Parliament has legislative jurisdiction over civil marriage, but it does not have any jurisdiction to establish an institution other than marriage for couples of the same sex. As only the provinces and territories have jurisdiction to create civil unions, the inevitable legal patchwork caused by some 13 different forms of civil unions could well result in legal confusion, but it will not result in equality.
The Supreme Court declined to answer the fourth question in the reference and returned it to us to decide, but it did not do so in a vacuum. That is important to understand. It clearly indicated, as the member just reiterated, that Parliament must exercise its jurisdiction over civil marriage in a way that complies with the Constitution and the charter.
The Supreme Court also clearly told us that it refused to answer the question not because it disagreed, but because courts in eight provinces and one territory had already made binding decisions and thousands of couples had married in reliance on those decisions. The government is not only bound by decisions of the Supreme Court but by decisions of all courts. That is how the law changed in Ontario a couple of years ago. It was not a Supreme Court decision. It was another decision of another court of compelling authority in my province.
Unless we are willing in this Parliament to use the notwithstanding clause to overrule those findings, this is not going to change. As the Minister of Justice reminded us again, the courts' decisions did not only address the common law but two statutes of the House, the harmonization act for Quebec and the modernization act, both of which set out a legislative definition of the opposite sex requirement for marriage and which were also declared unconstitutional.
The government's commitment to uphold the right to equality without discrimination precludes the use of the notwithstanding clause which would deliberately deny the right of couples of the same sex to equal access to civil marriage. If one minority can have its rights taken away by deliberate government action, then all other rights are potentially at risk.
As Canada is a nation of minorities with a history of tolerance and acceptance of differences, this is incompatible with responsible government. I believe it will be shown tonight by a vote in the House that is the accepted will democratically elected members will make.
For those Canadians who are concerned about the impact of the bill on freedom of conscience and religion, the government will uphold freedom of religion. I would not vote for this bill if I did not think this bill would not have that effect. It is an equal charter right.
I belong to a Christian faith that supports this bill. One of the things that has been difficult to take during this lengthy debate is someone telling other people they are unchristian or they have no faith just because they disagree on a rights issue. That is not the case for many members in this chamber and I think we should be respectful of each other in the way we express our views.
The Supreme Court was categorical. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms already protects freedom of religion. This protection is clearly echoed in the bill to extend civil marriage to same sex couples now in five separate places, asserting the government's commitment to religious freedom by stating that everyone has the freedom of religion under the charter and that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs. The bill only applies to marriage for civil purposes and will not have any effect on religious marriage in any way.
To extend this protection, further specific guarantees could also be made under provincial and territorial human rights acts and marriage acts. The Minister of Justice has already asked his provincial and territorial colleagues for their cooperation in any necessary amendments that those provinces or territories choose to do. I know that legislation passed in Ontario.
As the Minister of Justice has said, the charter is the expression and the entrenchment of our rights and freedoms, the codification of the best of Canadian values and aspirations. We are all its beneficiaries, and that includes the minority groups who live in my riding and who I have been elected to also represent. It is not a question of percentages or numbers. Even if there are very few as a percentage of population whom this bill protects, it is also my job to protect them. I take that responsibility seriously.
When people come to me and tell me their stories, whether it is orally in my office or through their letters, I know that many people have been suffering because they did not feel the dignity of equality. They do not want to take anything away from someone who disagrees with them. They are not asking to take away any benefit from another person. They are just asking for the legal extension of the same benefits.
The charter defines who we are as a people and what we aspire to be. It is in that spirit that the legislation has been tabled and in which the democratic debate and exercise in democracy will be carried out. It is also in that spirit, and I would suggest my hope, for equality the rights of minorities and the protection of religious freedoms that I trust the legislation will be enacted.
This is not about social experimentation. This is about charter rights for all, including what to some are unpopular minority groups in this country.
In my home constituency, it was the same charter and protection of minority rights that I went to when I was looking at anti-terrorism provisions that we were debating. I talked to minority groups that felt threatened. I used those provisions to bring areas into the legislation and to change legislation in the House with the help of others. We brought in sunset clauses to the legislation that I had found a little close to draconian at the time.
It is that same charter that gives those individuals and those communities the protection. We do not know when we will need our charter rights. There are many countries around the world that do not have those protections. Many of us have young folks who are travelling abroad. If they get into trouble in another country, those charter protections and justice system are just not there in some parts of the world. We are very fortunate in this country. I celebrate having a charter.
The right to equality, in my view, is an extremely important fundamental right guaranteed by the charter. I know that some people at different times have made comical comments, or at least they thought they were, or they did not understand how the charter could protect them and their families. I think the majority of Canadians do celebrate this piece of legislation.
Rights are rights. It does not matter if we do not like the phrase, it is still true. None of us can, nor should we, pick and choose whose rights we will defend and whose rights we will ignore. The government must represent the rights of all Canadians equally. This bill is the only way possible to fully protect both the important charter rights involved here, religious freedom and equality. One right does not trump another right. They have to coexist.
The House has a duty not only to those opposed, but to those in favour, not only to those religious groups who do not wish to perform same sex marriages, but also to those who do.
In the discussions surrounding the 1968 Divorce Act, religious groups took sides, some urging the government not to pass the civil divorce law for Canada, fearing the impact on religious practice, and others urging the government to go further and include a ground for divorce based solely on marital breakdown.
Bill C-38 already represents the Canadian compromise, the change to the civil law, while at the same time respecting the right of religious groups to determine religious law in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. I would just as forcefully argue for that protection as I would for the equality and protection of a minority, and so should every member of this chamber.
Now, as then, it falls to the civil authority to legislate in a way that allows all religious groups to continue with their respective beliefs. The way to do that is the bill before us today. I fully understand, and I do not think any member could have worked in this House for a number of years without understanding, that this issue of extending equal access to civil marriage to same sex couples is one that evokes strong feelings. That is a given. A number of my constituents as well as my own circle of family, friends and colleagues have struggled with this issue.
I want to remind those on all sides of the debate that there is a human face on this issue at all times. It is not just about rhetoric or about words. It is not just about invoking the Charter of Rights. It is about the people inside of those rights. What we decide here will impact on the lives of real people.
I have talked to many who have felt that some of the debate over the time that we have debated this have used words and thoughts in the debate that have hurt them. Some gay and lesbian couples felt that some of the debate had crossed the line. I think that was unfortunate and I hope that none of it was intended. I would like to think none of it was intended. I think sometimes some people get carried away.
Some, I know, contend that the small number of gay and lesbian people just proves that this group is so small that they do not warrant the attention and consideration being given to them by the courts and the legislatures throughout the country.
As the Vanier Institute of the Family pointed out in its presentation to our House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights when it studied this issue in early 2003, this argument is dangerously misguided.
A democratic and a just society must measure itself, not only by reference to the majority but equally by reference to how it respects each and every individual citizen, regardless of their differences, their heritage, their religion, their abilities or disabilities, their gender, their race or their sexual orientation. Surely history has taught us something, that we cannot distribute justice or fairness on the basis of numbers.
Others are concerned that gay and lesbian couples do not remain in long term relationships. While we may have little scientific data on this to date, it is interesting to note that all the court cases against the government seem to be couples who have been together for 30 years or more. Sure, not all same sex couples may stay together for 30 or 40 years, but as long as some do how can they be treated any differently on that basis?
Are children part of these couples' lives? The 2001 Canadian census indicates that 15% of households headed by lesbian couples had children, versus 3% among male same sex households. That means that at least 3,000 same sex couples are raising children in Canada today.
The children become members of these families in a variety of ways. The Vanier Institute of the Family reviewed the research available and noted that the majority of these children were born into a mother-father unit that ultimately ended in divorce or separation and the parent with care of the child then re-partners in a same sex relationship. That is not the only scenario but it is one that does occur.
How are the children faring in these households with same sex parents? This is a question of great concern to many Canadians, and it should be. They can accept that adults should be free to choose partners of their choice but they are rightly concerned about the children being raised in these relationships.
While no large-scale, definitive study exists, all the research to date suggests that the quality of parenting is a more important factor in the success of children than the sexual orientation of the parent. Indeed, as we all know, most children do not want to know about their parents' sex lives or even that they have a sex life. Maybe if one is in Parliament, one does not, I do not know.
However what makes a good family good for a child is not just the make up of that family, the married couple, the common-law, the single parent, the extended family, the only child, but that the family loves, cares and supports these children and, by extension, the community has to love, care and support these children.
We all know instances where a married heterosexual couple may be the best place for children to be raised but we all know instances where it is not. Whoever their parents are, all children need love and supervision. They all need to be sheltered, fed, taken to school and so on.
Children need and deserve the full support of government, not only for themselves but for their real families, not some make-believe family but their real families existing today on every street in Canada.