Pride Commentary: Advancing Rights in Canada


On this Pride weekend in Vancouver, it is worthwhile to take note for the journey of the gay rights movement to date. As many have noted, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which marked the start of the movement for equal rights, at least in the United States. But equally, if not more important, is that 2009 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the passage of the Omnibus Act by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Government. The Omnibus Act made sweeping changes to Canada’s Criminal Code, decriminalizing abortion, allowing contraception, regulating gun possession and drinking and driving. It also decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. In the face of vicious attacks by his critics, Trudeau, who introduced the legislation while he was Justice Minister, remained resolved to see the bill passed as a new Prime Minister.

Over the course of subsequent years, further advances were made. In 1977, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Later that year, the Canadian Immigration Act was amended to remove the ban against homosexual men as immigrants. In 1986, Ontario’s Human Rights Code was amended to include sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. From 1987 to 1995, similar changes were made in Manitoba, the Yukon, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland, leaving Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and the Northwest Territories as the only provinces without those protections. By 2002, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, and the newly created territory of Nunavut also enacted the changes, and Alberta was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1992, then-Justice Minister Kim Campbell, a Progressive Conservative who would later serve briefly as Prime Minister, lifted the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the Canadian Forces. Canada was one of the first countries to take such action.

In 1996, Jean Chretien’s government amended the Canadian Human Rights Act, ending discrimination based on sexual discrimination in areas of federal jurisdiction. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights as heterosexual common-law couples. In response to the ruling, Chretien’s Liberal government introduced changes in 2000 that amended 68 federal statutes, and extended pension benefits, income tax benefits, old age security, and immigration privileges, among others, to same-sex couples.

In 2003, same-sex couples won a major victory at the British Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest federal court in the province. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar same-sex couples from marrying. The court gave the federal government two years to change the law. Months later, the Ontario Court of Appeal made a similar ruling, without the delay. Ontario became the first province to allow same-sex couples to marry. The British Columbia Court of Appeals subsequently amended its decision, allowing same-sex couples to marry late in 2003.

In the summer of 2005, Paul Martin’s government passed the Civil Marriage Act with widespread support from the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, and a small handful of Conservatives. A month later, the bill passed the Senate, and received Royal Assent the following day, making Canada the fourth country in the world to officially allow same-sex marriage.

While many believe that newly-gained rights are safe, complacency is a very dangerous thing. California’s Proposition 8 was introduced in 2008 to overturn the newly-won right to marry in that state. In the early going of the campaign against Proposition 8, it seemed that everyone was so sure it would fail that it wasn’t taken seriously. By the time the ‘No on 8’ side realized how much money was pouring in from out of state, and how much the ‘Yes on 8’ side was willing to lie, the poll numbers had shifted, and never made it back. On Election Day, the right to marry was extinguished.

Over the past four years, it seems that there has been an effort to turn back the pace of progress in Canada. After being elected Prime Minister, one of Stephen Harper’s first acts was to attempt to reverse marriage equality in Canada. Fortunately, his minority government failed in that regard. As I noted in an article two weeks ago, Diane Ablonczy lost control of a $100-million tourism fund for giving $400,000 to the Toronto Pride Parade, which generates over $100-million in economic activity. Apparently this action offended the Conservative base. Tony Clement, widely regarded as a man incapable of standing up to the Prime Minister, was given possession of the file. In one of his first acts since taking over the file, Clement torpedoed the $155,000 request made by Montreal’s Pride Society. They had already been advised that their application met all the requirements for approval. Clement’s intervention came just days before the Montreal’s Divers/Cité festival was to begin, forcing them to cancel various events.

At this year’s Vancouver Pride Parade, the Liberals will be represented, as will the NDP, and the Greens. The Conservatives have chosen once again not to attend. The Vancouver Pride Parade and Festival is the largest single-day event in Western Canada, drawing over half a million spectators, and creating millions of dollars of economic activity. Its appeal is not restricted just to the LGBT community, but draws people of all ages, and from all walks of life. It is a celebration of our diversity. That the governing Conservatives are the only major federal party not to be represented is shameful. Those who govern us ought to be leaders, but on the issue of equal rights, the Conservatives seem to lagging behind the rest of the country. It is true that there are people in the Conservative Party like Diane Ablonczy who have fully embraced equality. She, and those like her, are to be applauded. But the balance of power in the Conservative Party still tilted the scales against her, and other progressive thinkers like her. It will take significant public pressure to change this.

Equal rights have come a long way in Canada over the past forty years. But rights do not sustain themselves. As Canadians, we must remain vigilant against forces that seek to turn back the clock. This isn’t about calling people bigots, or close-minded. What is necessary is to seek to engage these people proactively. Many of them will not embrace the LGBT community. Acceptance, and an end to rampant demagoguery, however, would be a good start.

Submitted by: Sameer I.Sameer is a Vancouver-based consultant and political strategist.

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