“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” Pierre Trudeau, then Canada’s justice minister, proclaimed to the TV cameras in 1967, after introducing a bill to decriminalize private homosexual acts. The governing philosophies of Canada can often be found in the quips of Trudeau, the flamboyant and scholarly Liberal prime minister who led the country almost continuously from 1968 to 1984. On Tuesday, when it passed Bill C-38, which will federally sanction same-sex marriages, a Liberal party that is a battered remnant of Trudeau’s powerful machine showed that it still has enough power to define what it means to be Canadian. As soon as the Senate rubber-stamps the law in July, there will be no place for the state in the wedding plans of the nation, either.
Trudeau would have achieved this breakthrough by leading from the front, forcefully knocking down what he called “totems and taboos” to “bring the laws of the land up to contemporary society.” By contrast, the current Liberal government, led by Paul Martin, is in the minority and barely survived a confidence vote just six weeks ago. It is leading this charge from the back of the pack, enacting legislation to catch up with a Supreme Court decision in December that validated gay marriages nationwide by ruling that the federal government could change its definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The court itself acknowledged that it was catching up, stating that the recognition of same-sex marriage in several Canadian jurisdictions and two countries, Belgium and the Netherlands (the court wasn’t then aware of Spain’s similar move on Wednesday), “belies the assertion” that “marriage should be available only to same-sex couples.”
Like so many Supreme Court decisions on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, the ruling and the legislation born from it are not about what they appear to be about. A half-dozen gays and lesbians I spoke with Tuesday expressed little interest in getting married. “I’ve never had much interest in or respect for the institution of marriage,” one of them told me. Another said, “I’m in a long-term committed relationship, but I have no need to have it validated by having it ceremonially and legally branded as a marriage.” They said they have attended only a handful of gay marriages and know very few gay couples who are planning to go to the altar (or a civil judge) anytime soon. Their apparent lack of enthusiasm for the new law won’t stop the momentum of foreigners who make the trek to Canada to get hitched, but if Canadian gays are not planning to get married in droves, what is all the fuss about?
It’s about that very simple but very pesky idea: equality under the law. In 1982, Trudeau’s government left a sasquatch-size imprint on the nation when it enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s version of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which has propelled thousands of legal battles since, including the ones that resulted in Bill C-38. “Whether I want to get married or not doesn’t really matter,” one lesbian told me. “If the government has an institution and I cannot participate in it, I am a second-class citizen. If I am a full member of society, I must have the choice. I am proud of my government for recognizing that. I only wish we had been first.”
One gay man thinks the new law’s biggest impact will be on gay men’s relationships: “Since gay relationships are recognized all the way up to the level of marriage, gay men may value their relationships more. I think men of my generation have devalued relationships because their relationships are devalued by society at large.”
For those Canadians who oppose the government’s sanctioning of same-sex marriages, this issue is not about equality at all. It’s about God. The Conservatives, the leading opposition party, muse about whether C-38 will be effective “in terms of protecting religious freedoms.” Since the bill does not force clerics to perform same-sex marriages, the Conservatives’ position must be code. What they’re really saying is that the mere fact that the sacrosanct term “marriage” can be used in the same breath as “homosexual” offends the sensibility of those who believe that God is concerned about whom you sleep with and how. Some people believe he/she is; some people don’t; some people don’t believe in God at all. At this late date, one would think that God would not and could not enter into the matter, but the Canadian national anthem still contains the line “God keep our land glorious and free,” which for many people means that patriotism and piety are one and the same. And we all know whom God speaks directly to south of the 49th Parallel.
As for totems and taboos, well, the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage in the States and Canada seem very hung up on the use of the M-word. They seem truly to believe that God, speaking English, said, “Marriage shall be between a man and a woman.” If the supreme being that guides our fate is that worried about the strict construction of a single word — has that little a grasp of nuance and semantic change — we have much bigger fish to fry than same-sex marriage. If God is into freezing the meaning of words, then words like Canadian and American must be frozen for all of time too, even though the evidence here on earth is to the contrary.
According to Michael Adams, in “Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values,” the definitions of what it means to be a Canadian or an American, once quite similar, are now diverging steadily, most strikingly where the place of God in society is concerned. According to a 2002 Pew Research Center poll cited by Adams, “religion was found to be important to 59 percent of Americans — the highest proportion in all the developed nations surveyed — and to only 30 percent of Canadians, a rate similar to that found in Great Britain and Italy.” The good money is not on the United States becoming the fifth country to sanction same-sex marriage at the national level.
One might expect that since the Liberal Party that rules Canada is in the minority and just barely got the law enacted, Canadians are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Indeed, there is a vocal opposition, but polls cited by Adams show the public strongly supporting it (except among those over 55), and by a larger percentage than in the United States. The Conservative Party, which started as a regional party that catered to Canadian Westerners’ alienation from the Eastern establishment, has strived mightily to make itself a national party, and it could be if it were located in the United States, because many of its members espouse the kind of social conservatism that’s in vogue there. To become a national party in Canada, though, the Conservatives must hide this fact. But just when it looks like they’ve managed to do so, as if in a reverse Clintonian bimbo eruption, some member of Parliament from a God-fearing locale pipes up about moral depravity of one kind or another. At that point, Canadians cannot find a pole long enough to distance themselves from this bigoted brand of conservatism.
When you exist in the shadow of the United States, Trudeau said, “it is like sleeping with an elephant.” If you fear you will be crushed by the moral and cultural weight of your near neighbor, you tend to stick together. So, upstanding though they may be — what with the Mounties and all that — most Canadians blanch at preaching to their fellow citizens about their behavior and creating differences that separate needlessly. That’s why it’s the third country to make it possible for people who wear the label “homosexual” to add the label “married.” After all, it’s just a word.
One gay man told me on Tuesday morning that he felt good but not ecstatic: “I asked myself when I came into work this morning if I was any different today, and the answer was ‘No.’ And that’s the point. I deserve to be no different from anyone else.”