Considering how often and vociferously the Liberals accuse Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of intending to legislate on abortion, it always struck me as odd that they never accused him of wanting to roll back same-sex marriage rights. Justin Trudeau’s gang have never met a fear too remote to monger, and while Scheer vows inaction on both fronts, his record is probably more anti-same-sex-marriage than it is anti-abortion.
The answer seems to be that the Liberals just hadn’t yet been desperate enough. On Thursday morning, with the SNC-Lavalin affair still dominating the headlines, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale tweeted out a 2005 speech in the House of Commons by Scheer and demanded to know “whether he would still deny same-sex couples the right to marry.” In a statement later in the day, Goodale suggested Scheer might begin his penance by attending this weekend’s Pride festivities in Ottawa. The usual media outlets went big.
The speech is a reminder of what a hideous mess the same-sex marriage debate really was. We should have been talking about two separate things: one, the package of benefits and responsibilities the federal government affords committed couples who meet certain criteria; and two, what to call the package. And Scheer nearly got there: “Marriage does not come from the state and does not depend on the government,” he said. But then he launched an explicitly religious defence of state-sanctioned marriage: “There is no complementarity of the sexes,” he says, using a word straight out of the Catechism.
“Two members of the same sex may … have many of the collateral features of marriage,” he argued, “but they do not have its inherent feature, as they cannot commit to the natural procreation of children.”
This was hardly out of left field. No less than Supreme Court Justice Gérard La Forest made the same argument in the 1995 Egan decision, concluding that “marriage is by nature heterosexual.” And of course, the Canadian institution of marriage is grounded in such religious beliefs. But it has been noticeably secularizing almost from Day One. In 1882 Parliament angered Leviticus fans by making it legal to marry your dead spouse’s (opposite-sex sibling. The first federal Divorce Act was in 1968. By the late 20th century, marriage benefits and responsibilities had been afforded to millions of Canadians in common-law relationships — i.e., who weren’t even married.
It was a profound moral failure that it took so long for Canada to at the very least stop discriminating against LGBT people on those tangible grounds — pension rights, bereavement leave, old age security, adoption — and that it almost always came as a result of litigation.
Those questions met the “marriage” question in 2005, and it got ugly. Scheer’s reasoning stinks; he hasn’t explained at any length why he now supports the marriage law; he won’t attend Pride events, which many other Conservative politicians are happy to do; and he voted against Bill C-16, which protected gender identity and expression under the Human Rights Act, when 38 of his fellow Conservatives voted for it. In short, Scheer has earned his unpopularity in the gay community.
But at least we have his reasons on the record; at least we can understand where he was coming from. We cannot say the same for most Liberal MPs who opposed same-sex marriage in the past, some of whom are still around — MPs like Ralph Goodale, for example. In 1995, he voted against a motion from openly gay Bloc Québécois MP Réal Ménard that simply proposed “the legal recognition of same-sex spouses” — it didn’t even mention the M-word. Four years later, he voted in favour of a Reform MP’s motion stating that “marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.”
“The fact that we will be supporting the motion should come as a surprise to no one,” then-justice minister Anne McLellan told the House, noting that the courts had signed off on heterosexual-exclusive marriage and that no other country had gone as far as Canadian same-sex marriage proponents demanded. “I fundamentally do not believe that it is necessary to change the definition of marriage in order to accommodate the equality issues around same-sex partners which now face us.”
My best guess: For most of them, opposing it was simply the easiest thing to do
So what underpinned her position, and Goodale’s, and that of all those other Liberals? Presumably it wasn’t faith; we know good Liberals park religion at the door and work toward the good of the country using empirical evidence. So what evidence led the self-styled Party of the Charter and most of its MPs to oppose same-sex marriage?
My best guess, and I think a reasonable one: For most of them, opposing it was simply the easiest thing to do, until various court decisions made supporting it the easiest thing to do. They got there in the end, and before many Conservatives like Andrew Scheer. But it’s absolutely nothing to boast about. For someone with a record like Goodale to lord it over Scheer, let alone invite him to a Pride parade, evinces blistering levels of hypocrisy and arrogance, even by Liberal standards.