LES WHITTINGTON AND SEAN GORDON
Jun. 29, 2005. 06:38 AM
OTTAWA—A bill to legalize gay and lesbian marriage was passed by a bitterly divided House of Commons last night in a vote likely to reverberate for months, if not years, to come.
Prime Minister Paul Martin's government, with the support of New Democrat and Bloc Québécois MPs, overrode opposition from the Conservatives and 32 Liberals to win final approval of the legislation, 158 to 133.
"Tonight's vote is about the Charter of Rights," Martin said shortly before the dramatic roll call.
"We are a nation of minorities, and in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don't cherry-pick rights. A right is a right, and that's what this is all about."
After the vote on Bill C-38, the Commons adjourned for the summer and will resume sitting on Sept. 26.
The bill will now go to the Liberal-dominated Senate, where it is expected to be passed within a few weeks. The legislation makes Canada the third country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage, after Belgium and the Netherlands.
In front of packed galleries in the steamy legislature at 9 p.m., MPs applauded or jeered each other as they stood to vote with — or defy — their party on the issue.
There was a sense of a momentous development.
Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood) said the law will be "devastating" for Canada and something that all federal politicians will have to answer for in the next election.
But Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe was elated. "I am very happy," he told reporters. "It was time we took a position on this — it's been debated for two or three years. I think it's a victory for democracy."
The legislation, which originated with former prime minister Jean Chrétien's government, split the Commons as few other recent social issues have done. And many on Parliament Hill believed it will continue to be a hot-button issue into the next federal election campaign, which Martin has promised to launch next winter.
The Conservatives, who tried but failed to defeat the Liberal minority on a budget bill in a last-ditch attempt to stall the same-sex marriage legislation, vowed to carry on their fight.
Tory Leader Stephen Harper says his party will test the same-sex marriage law in Parliament again if he gains power in the next election.
"There will be a chance to revisit this in a future Parliament," Harper said earlier in the day. "Our intention is to have a free vote."
Only minutes before the vote, MPs were still heatedly debating the bill, which has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of emotional argument touching on human rights, religious freedom, the role of the family, society's institutions and the limits of government influence.
In a stunning symbolic gesture, Joe Comuzzi, the Liberal minister for Northern Ontario economic development, resigned to vote against Bill C-38. Unlike cabinet ministers, backbench Liberal MPs were free to vote their consciences and 32 Liberals stood to oppose the legislation. Five were absent.
Martin said he regretted Comuzzi's resignation from cabinet, and hailed his contribution to political life and his stint as minister.
"I feel very badly, but I do understand why he's taken this decision," the Prime Minister said.
The courts in eight provinces and one territory have already recognized same-sex marriage rights. Only the jurisdictions of Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have not.
NDP Leader Jack Layton called the legislation an important step "in the pursuit of full equality for every Canadian" and he reflected on his own wedding to Olivia Chow, a Toronto councillor.
"Many years ago, when Olivia and I got married, we dreamed of the day when our lesbian and gay friends might be able to celebrate their relationships. There was just as much love as we felt," he said.
"I never thought I'd have the opportunity to be part of this historic moment. I think it's a very important day."
Following the vote, Layton stripped MP Bev Desjarlais (Churchill) of her critic duties and moved her to the backbench for voting against the same-sex legislation, which has been a key plank of the party's platform.
In 2003, the Liberals sent a draft same-sex marriage bill to the Supreme Court of Canada for advice.
Gay marriages were already being performed in some provinces after lower courts overturned traditional marriage laws.
With files from Bruce Campion-Smith and Graham Fraser