Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today in this debate that is of fundamental importance for Canadian society.
In 1999 I voted with the majority in this House. Like most members, like most Canadians, the definition of marriage that the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others is the one I grew up with, the one I learned from my parents. However let me remind members of parliament that our attachment to long cherished traditions and conventions is not the only, or even the best, measure of what is just or what is right.
There was a time in Canada, not all that long ago, when it was considered perfectly acceptable that women could not vote. There was a time when women were not even legally defined as persons.
There was a time when immigrants were denied the right to vote, when they were turned away from our shores, when visible minorities were denied access to their rightful opportunities for employment.
Yes, there was a time even in our more recent past when aboriginal people were also denied the vote, when aboriginal people were denied the basic right to hire a lawyer to bring claims to court.
There was a time in my own province of Quebec when it was very difficult for francophones to work in their own language or to be served in their mother tongue by their national government, even in this House of Commons.
Each convention in its time was considered perfectly appropriate. Each in its time was fuelled in part by prejudice and misunderstandings, but more profoundly by a subtle assumption that things were supposed to be this way, assumptions held without thought as to the pain and sense of exclusion it might inflict on others. Each convention had its time and that time has passed thanks, in part, to the acts and actions taken by the Parliament of Canada.
Today we are debating the legal definition of marriage and it is our intention, as you are aware, to introduce a bill on this in Parliament. We have a fundamental obligation to do so, in light of another parliamentary statute, the most important one in our history, the Constitution Act of 1982. Enacted with a huge majority in both chambers, this act gave birth to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The charter enshrined certain fundamental individual rights into law, investing each and every Canadian with the right to find out from the courts whether enacted legislation infringed upon rights. Adoption of the charter and its entrenchment by Parliament in the Constitution was the expression of the opinion of duly elected legislators, some of whom are still with us in this House. This means that, even if Parliament has the last word as far as legislation is concerned, this should not be the only word.
In short, the charter must serve as a vehicle for challenging established hypotheses, beliefs and attitudes, regardless of how familiar and comforting these may be, in order to ensure that all Canadians have equal treatment before the law. The charter has so far served Canada and Parliament well in this respect.
As for whether the current definition of marriage infringes on the charter guarantees of equality, the courts have been clear and consistent. It does. The British Columbia and Ontario appeal courts found that, in relation to the guarantees of equality conferred by the charter, limiting civil marriage to two individuals of opposite sex discriminated against the gays and lesbians of Canada who wished to demonstrate the same degree of commitment. A similar decision handed down in Quebec is currently being appealed.
Courts also made it clear that their decisions affected civil marriage only. They emphasized that the charter also guarantees freedom of religion. All religious groups have the right to refuse to marry anyone who does not meet the requirements of their respective faith. They have it now and they will continue to have it.
Both fundamental principles--equality based on personal characteristics like race, language or sexual orientation, and freedom of religion--co-exist in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One does not trump the other. That is why the two principles strike a balance in the marriage bill that has been drafted. There are only two provisions. The first defines marriage to be “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. The second states, “Nothing in this Act affects the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs”.
To further ensure freedom of religion, the bill has been referred to the Supreme Court of Canada along with this specific question: “Does the freedom of religion guaranteed by paragraph 2(a) of the Canadian 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?”
Hon. members will have the full advantage of the Supreme Court response in this matter when Parliament debates the bill. At the same time, it will have the opportunity to debate the government's proposals.
The notwithstanding clause is such a powerful tool that the federal Parliament has never had recourse to it. It would be a mistake to authorize such recourse by voting in favour of this motion and of the terms “take all necessary steps” without a full and separate debate.
Let me be clear. A vote in favour of the Alliance motion means a vote to use the notwithstanding clause. The Government of Canada has never invoked this clause to override the charter rights of a minority. I believe this would set a dangerous precedent.
The Alliance rejects equality in human rights. The Alliance rejects the charter. Let us not fall into the opposition's trap.
We are at an historic moment in time. We have the opportunity to challenge our settled assumptions and beliefs and do what is right in terms of equality: to vote down this motion that would once again restrict marriage to opposite sex couples.
And I believe this is the right thing to do. We cannot deny the rights of people who are part of our society. They are not to be ignored or made to feel invisible. Some may be our friends or our neighbours. Some may be our sons or our daughters. They live, work and contribute in our communities. They too pay taxes. They are in long term relationships and in some cases raise children. Their relationships deserve to be fully recognized too. Anything less is discrimination. I believe this is about equality, dignity and respect for all Canadians.