Protecting equal marriage rights for Canadian same-sex couples

Statements by the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice on January 12 about the validity of same-sex marriage left thousands of same-sex couples who have come to Canada to get married and celebrate their love wondering if they were in fact married at all. And if some same-sex marriages are neither equal nor even valid, are equal marriage rights for Canadian same-sex couples safe and secure?

Those who came to Canada to get married were told by the government of Canada that their love was equal and their relationships would be recognized as legal. These are people who followed the rules, paid their fees, spent their tourist dollars here in Canada, and suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them.

But this was no accident despite the Harper government claiming they had no idea this was going on. This was not the first time the Harper government has been caught attempting to restrict equal-marriage rights through the back door by intervening in court cases. In October, the Harper government intervened in an Ontario family law case to argue against legal recognition of a same-sex civil union preformed in the U.K. On October 6, 2011, I asked the Minister of Justice why the government was opposing the guarantee of full and equal protection of the law to this couple under the Divorce Act. The minister responded by saying that the government did not wish to re-open the debate on same-sex marriage and that this case was just "a legal dispute over definitions."

But when we talk about equal marriage we are not just talking about legal definitions, we are talking about people's lives and the rights and freedoms that Canada prides itself on. We are talking about definitions that have serious implications for family law, especially in the areas of child custody and division of property on dissolution of a relationship. The Conservative government's actions in October 2011 and the actions taken again in January demonstrate how they have been systematically attempting to chip away at the rights of the LGBTQ community.

This doesn't seem to be the only case for Conservative government members looking to roll back rights that are enshrined in law. Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth made his intention of re-opening the abortion debate very clear at the close of the House in December. Once again this allowed the Harper cabinet to deny responsibility for pursuing a social conservative agenda, this time in re-opening an attack on women's rights. If the prime minister is going to continue to insist that his government has no intention of re-opening these debates, he needs to ensure that his cabinet ministers and backbenchers are following suit.

The Harper government has tried to blame the previous Liberal government for leaving gaps in the law regarding same-sex marriage. It does seem that there are some gaps but the Harper government should act immediately to fix them, rather than trying to use those gaps to undermine equal marriage. In the case of non-residents being unable to divorce, there is a simple fix but instead the Conservatives used this technical problem to attack the validity of these marriages. We need to end the uncertainty the Harper government created; New Democrats will introduce the necessary legislation if the government continues to stall, unless of course the courts fix the problem first.

I have no doubt that the Harper government did not want to reopen the public debate on equal marriage because this is a debate they know they can't win. Just look at how fast they backed away from their legal arguments, which in the morning they said invalidated foreign same-sex marriages. By afternoon the strong public reaction had forced them to restate their acceptance of legal reality in Canada, that equal marriage is here to stay. Canadians' belief in equality and fair play will accept no less.

Randall Garrison is Member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca.

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