Left: Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. Right: Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative party in the Great White North, is opposed to same-sex marriage, but his position is still light years ahead on this issue from the views of most politicians in the U.S.

There is a small brush fire going on over gay marriage in Canada. Measures to pacify those opposed to it have been thrown a bone — civic officials that disapprove cannot be forced to perform them. This measure is being proposed by the Liberal party to appease those that do not support gay marriage, but this is not enough for Conservative Stephen Harper, who wishes to create a separate but equal status for same sex unions. I find this “controversy” amusing because any and all of what you read below is so much more than anything gays in the U.S. have on the table at all (even Massachusetts).

Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said that the legislation will contain a clause that lets civic officials who do not approve of same-sex marriage to refuse to conduct ceremonies.

Cotler’s move to exclude a requirement for local civil servants to conduct ceremonies for gay couples could mean that in smaller rural communities there would be no one to solemnify a marriage.

The move has also failed to appease Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

Harper said that his party would put forward three amendments to the Liberals’ same-sex marriage bill when it is introduced in late January.

Harper told reporters Tuesday that one amendment would ensure that the legislation would preserve the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. He said a second amendment would protect the rights of non-traditional unions so that they are afforded the same benefits as married couples. The third amendment, Harper said, would provide substantive protection for religious institutions to be free from performing gay marriages.

Harper also had a warning for the minority Liberal government: “Should these amendments not be adopted by the House, a Conservative government will introduce them as legislation in the future and hold a free vote at that time.”

Meanwhile, the premier of the only province officially opposed to gay marriage, Alberta’s Ralph Klein, has conceded that the province has virtually no legal options to oppose same-sex marriage.

Harper, I suppose, would be classified politically here as “wingnut lite” from the Canadian POV. When we were in Vancouver getting married in July, all the news and talk in town was about the elections (Harper ran and lost in a fairly close race against the eventual winner, Liberal Paul Martin). Most Canadians we spoke with dismissed him, but he still had a generous amount of support when it came down to a national vote, particularly in the more rural provinces, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan. There is talk that he has a separate, subversive anti-rights agenda, but again, his position is still more progressive than what you hear in this country — that’s is a sad commentary on the U.S.

In the Winnepeg Sun, Harper’s motives for the proposed amendments are being questioned by the local press — it’s clear he’s queasy about taking a firm public position when it comes down to the details.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper yesterday dodged questions about whether he supports same-sex marriage, prompting criticism he has a hidden agenda from a national gay rights group. “I think he needs to be honest with Canadians about exactly what he wants to do here,” said Laurie Arron, EGALE’s director of advocacy.

He clearly wants to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage and create a separate but equal scheme.”

The criticism comes as Harper revealed three amendments his party plans to table when the Grits bring forward the same-sex marriage legislation early next year.

The three amendments include a recognition of the traditional definition of marriage; full recognition of same-sex relationships possessing equal rights and benefits; and protection for religious institutions.

“I believe this position represents the view of a majority of Canadians,” Harper said.

“Should these amendments not be adopted by the House, a Conservative government will introduce them as legislation in the future and hold a free vote at that time.”

When Harper was asked to explain how already-married gay couples would be affected by the amendments and whether their marriages would stand, he refused to say.

Late yesterday, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler was compelled to shoot down a number of statements made by Harper, saying Harper’s plan would require him to invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.

“Mr. Harper come clean and tell us where you stand,” Cotler said.”We are not being required to legislate, we are choosing to legislate.”

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding