Meanwhile, In The United States…

November 14th, 2008

Gay couples in the United States are in bitter-sweet celebration this week after a court victory won the right of same-sex marriage in Connecticut, a week after California lost it due to Proposition 8’s passage. Emboldened by what happened in California, anti-gay lobby groups are already working hard to reverse Connecticut’s court ruling, which they call “undemocratic.”

Undemocratic: That’s a word we’ll be hearing a lot of from anti-gay groups down South for a while, at least if Canada’s history on the matter is any indication.

When Stephen Harper announced that Canada’s Conservative party would vote to re-open the “marriage debate” in late 2006, I felt completely heartsick. Gay couples had already won the right to marry from multiple consecutive court rulings, and a bill to legalize it nationally had narrowly passed the year prior. That the Conservative Party was motioning to vote to take away rights from a minority group that fought so hard for them was confusing and mean-spirited, but they insisted it was necessary because the previous vote apparently wasn’t “free” enough. Liberal cabinet ministers, a handful of seats in the 308-seat parliament, were required to vote for equal marriage rights. That, they said, was undemocratic.

Ignoring, for a moment, that the “party whip,” a requirement by the party leader to vote for or against legislation, is part of our democratic process and something every party has employed, I couldn’t believe how quickly lessons from history had been forgotten. The fundamentally flawed concept that the rights of minorities should be decided by the majority had been used before in Canada, and it resulted in one of our greatest shames.

In 1885, Canada’s history was forever marred by the Chinese Immigration Act, brought into law through a democratic vote. Having already settled in North America, the people decided that legal barriers were necessary to keep out Chinese immigrants; they introduced a fifty dollar head tax for each Chinese immigrant, a small fortune at the time. This lasted 15 years until, in 1900, a second democratic vote increased that fee to five hundred dollars. Not long after, a third democratic vote severely restricted the number of Chinese immigrants that could be on any given boat to Canada, depending on the weight of the boat. Finally, in 1923, Canada banned Chinese immigrations entirely. The law wasn’t repealed for 24 years.

While the controversy was different, the concept was the same. The majority could tyrannize an unpopular minority, and protests or protections from this were dismissed as undemocratic.

This is precisely what’s happening in the States, and I’m deeply saddened that California is a part of it. It brought back memories from 2000, when I was living in Alberta and the provincial Tories utilized an obscure clause to override Canada’s Charter of Rights and ban same-sex marriage in the province. Thankfully, despite both successful and unsuccessful votes to ban it, Canada kept fighting and was eventually able to win equal marriage rights. The United States will too.

Protests against Proposition 8 are happening all over the world tomorrow, November 15th, and Canadians are invited to join in! Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Sault Ste. Marie, and Calgary all have protests planned, and organizers in other cities are mobilizing too. Find out where it’s happening in your city and take part!