Address by Prime Minister Paul Martin on Bill C-38 (The Civil Marriage Act)
Martin, Prime Minister of Canada, February 16, 2005
I rise today in support of Bill C-38, the Civil Marriage
Act. I rise in support of a Canada in which liberties are safeguarded, rights
are protected and the people of this land are treated as equals under the law.
This is an important day. The attention of our nation is
focused on this chamber, in which John Diefenbaker introduced the Bill of
Rights, in which Pierre Trudeau fought to establish the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms. Our deliberations will be not merely about a piece of legislation or
sections of legal text – more deeply, they will be about the kind of nation
we are today, and the nation we want to be.
This bill protects minority rights. This bill affirms the
Charter guarantee of religious freedom. It is that straightforward, Mr.
Speaker, and it is that important.
And that is why I stand today before members here and
before the people of this country to say: I believe in, and I will fight for,
the Charter of Rights. I believe in, and I will fight for, a Canada that
respects the foresight and vision of those who created and entrenched the
Charter. I believe in, and I will fight for, a future in which generations of
Canadians to come, Canadians born here and abroad, will have the opportunity
to value the Charter as we do today – as an essential pillar of our
There have been a number of arguments put forward by
those who do not support this bill. It’s important and respectful to examine
them and to assess them.
First, some have claimed that, once this bill becomes
law, religious freedoms will be less than fully protected. This is
demonstrably untrue. As it pertains to marriage, the government’s
legislation affirms the Charter guarantee: that religious officials are free
to perform such ceremonies in accordance with the beliefs of their faith.
In this, we are guided by the ruling of the Supreme Court
of Canada, which makes clear that in no church, no synagogue, no mosque, no
temple – in no religious house will those who disagree with same-sex unions
be compelled to perform them. Period. That is why this legislation is about
civil marriage, not religious marriage.
Moreover—and this is crucially important – the
Supreme Court has declared unanimously, and I quote: “The guarantee of
religious freedom in section 2(a) of the Charter is broad enough to protect
religious officials from being compelled by the state to perform civil or
religious same-sex marriages that are contrary to their religious beliefs.”
The facts are plain: Religious leaders who preside over
marriage ceremonies must and will be guided by what they believe. If they do
not wish to celebrate marriages for same-sex couples, that is their right. The
Supreme Court says so. And the Charter says so.
One final observation on this aspect of the issue:
Religious leaders have strong views both for and against this legislation.
They should express them. Certainly, many of us in this House, myself
included, have a strong faith, and we value that faith and its influence on
the decisions we make. But all of us have been elected to serve here as
Parliamentarians. And as public legislators, we are responsible for serving
all Canadians and protecting the rights of all Canadians.
We will be influenced by our faith but we also have an
obligation to take the widest perspective—to recognize that one of the great
strengths of Canada is its respect for the rights of each and every
individual, to understand that we must not shrink from the need to reaffirm
the rights and responsibilities of Canadians in an evolving society.
The second argument ventured by opponents of the bill is
that government ought to hold a national referendum on this issue. I reject
this – not out of a disregard for the view of the people, but because it
offends the very purpose of the Charter.
The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of
minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the
majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always
be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their
numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the
We embrace freedom and equality in theory, Mr. Speaker.
We must also embrace them in fact.
Third, some have counseled the government to extend to
gays and lesbians the right to “civil union.” This would give same-sex
couples many of the rights of a wedded couple, but their relationships would
not legally be considered marriage. In other words, they would be equal, but
not quite as equal as the rest of Canadians.
Mr. Speaker, the courts have clearly and consistently
ruled that this option would offend the equality provisions of the Charter.
For instance, the British Columbia Court of Appeal stated that, and I quote:
“Marriage is the only road to true equality for same-sex couples. Any other
form of recognition of same-sex relationships ...falls short of true
Put simply, we must always remember that “separate but
equal” is not equal. What’s more, those who call for the establishment of
civil unions fail to understand that the Government of Canada does not have
the constitutional jurisdiction to do so. Only the provinces have that. Only
the provinces could define such a regime – and they could define it in 10
different ways, and some jurisdictions might not bother to define it at all.
There would be uncertainty. There would be confusion. There would certainly
not be equality.
Fourth, some are urging the government to respond to the
decisions of the courts by getting out of the marriage business altogether.
That would mean no more civil weddings for any couples.
It is worth noting that this idea was rejected by the
major religions themselves when their representatives appeared before the
Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in 2003. Moreover, it would be
an extreme and counterproductive response for the government to deny civil
marriage to opposite-sex couples simply so it can keep it from same-sex
couples. To do so would simply be to replace one form of discrimination with
Finally, Mr. Speaker, there are some who oppose this
legislation who would have the government use the notwithstanding clause in
the Charter of Rights to override the courts and reinstate the traditional
definition of marriage. And really, this is the fundamental issue here.
Understand that in seven provinces and one territory, the
lawful union of two people of the same sex in civil marriage is already the
law of the land. The debate here today is not about whether to change the
definition of marriage – it’s been changed. The debate comes down to
whether we should override a right that is now in place. The debate comes down
to the Charter, the protection of minority rights, and whether the federal
government should invoke the notwithstanding clause.
I know that some think we should use the clause. For
example, some religious leaders feel this way. I respect their candor in
publicly recognizing that because same-sex marriage is already legal in most
of the country, the only way – the only way – to again make civil marriage
the exclusive domain of opposite-sex couples is to use the notwithstanding
Ultimately Mr. Speaker, there is only one issue before
this House in this debate. For most Canadians, in most parts of our country,
same-sex marriage is already the law of the land. Thus, the issue is not
whether rights are to be granted. The issue is whether rights that have been
granted are to be taken away.
Some are frank and straightforward and say yes. Others
have not been so candid. Despite being confronted with clear facts, despite
being confronted with the unanimous opinion of 134 legal scholars, experts in
their field, intimately familiar with the Constitution, some have chosen to
not be forthright with Canadians. They have eschewed the honest approach in
favour of the political approach. They have attempted to cajole the public
into believing that we can return to the past with a simple snap of the
fingers, that we can revert to traditional definition of marriage without
consequence and without overriding the Charter. They’re insincere. They’re
disingenuous. And they’re wrong.
There is one question that demands an answer – a
straight answer – from those who would seek to lead this nation and its
people. It is a simple question: Will you use the notwithstanding clause to
overturn the definition of civil marriage and deny to Canadians a right
guaranteed under the Charter?
This question does not demand rhetoric. It demands
clarity. There are only two legitimate answers – yes or no. Not the
demagoguery we have heard, not the dodging, the flawed reasoning, the false
options. Just yes or no.
Will you take away a right as guaranteed under the
Charter? I, for one, will answer that question, Mr. Speaker. I will answer it
clearly. I will say no.
The notwithstanding clause is part of the Charter of
Rights. But there’s a reason that no prime minister has ever used it. For a
prime minister to use the powers of his office to explicitly deny rather than
affirm a right enshrined under the Charter would serve as a signal to all
minorities that no longer can they look to the nation’s leader and to the
nation’s Constitution for protection, for security, for the guarantee of
their freedoms. We would risk becoming a country in which the defence of
rights is weighed, calculated and debated based on electoral or other
That would set us back decades as a nation. It would be
wrong for the minorities of this country. It would be wrong for Canada.
The Charter is a living document, the heartbeat of our
Constitution. It is also a proclamation. It declares that as Canadians, we
live under a progressive and inclusive set of fundamental beliefs about the
value of the individual. It declares that we all are lessened when any one of
us is denied a fundamental right.
We cannot exalt the Charter as a fundamental aspect of
our national character and then use the notwithstanding clause to reject the
protections that it would extend. Our rights must be eternal, not subject to
To those who value the Charter yet oppose the protection
of rights for same-sex couples, I ask you: If a prime minister and a national
government are willing to take away the rights of one group, what is to say
they will stop at that? If the Charter is not there today to protect the
rights of one minority, then how can we as a nation of minorities ever hope,
ever believe, ever trust that it will be there to protect us tomorrow?
My responsibility as Prime Minister, my duty to Canada
and to Canadians, is to defend the Charter in its entirety. Not to pick and
choose the rights that our laws shall protect and those that are to be
ignored. Not to decree those who shall be equal and those who shall not. My
duty is to protect the Charter, as some in this House will not.
Let us never forget that one of the reasons that Canada
is such a vibrant nation, so diverse, so rich in the many cultures and races
of the world, is that immigrants who come here – as was the case with the
ancestors of many of us in this chamber – feel free and are free to practice
their religion, follow their faith, live as they want to live. No homogenous
system of beliefs is imposed on them.
When we as a nation protect minority rights, we are
protecting our multicultural nature. We are reinforcing the Canada we value.
We are saying, proudly and unflinchingly, that defending rights – not just
those that happen to apply to us, not just that everyone approves of, but all
fundamental rights – is at the very soul of what it means to be a Canadian.
This is a vital aspect of the values we hold dear and
strive to pass on to others in the world who are embattled, who endure
tyranny, whose freedoms are curtailed, whose rights are violated.
Why is the Charter so important, Mr. Speaker? We have
only to look at our own history. Unfortunately, Canada’s story is one in
which not everyone’s rights were protected under the law. We have not been
free from discrimination, bias, unfairness. There have been blatant
Remember that it was once thought perfectly acceptable to
deny women “personhood” and the right to vote. There was a time, not that
long ago, that if you wore a turban, you couldn’t serve in the RCMP. The
examples are many, but what’s important now is that they are part of our
past, not our present.
Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and
our laws evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must
reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but
as we understand it today.
For gays and lesbians, evolving social attitudes have,
over the years, prompted a number of important changes in the law. Recall
that, until the late 1960s, the state believed it had the right to peek into
our bedrooms. Until 1977, homosexuality was still sufficient grounds for
deportation. Until 1992, gay people were prohibited from serving in the
military. In many parts of the country, gays and lesbians could not designate
their partners as beneficiaries under employee medical and dental benefits,
insurance policies or private pensions. Until very recently, people were being
fired merely for being gay.
Today, we rightly see discrimination based on sexual
orientation as arbitrary, inappropriate and unfair. Looking back, we can
hardly believe that such rights were ever a matter for debate. It is my hope
that we will ultimately see the current debate in a similar light; realizing
that nothing has been lost or sacrificed by the majority in extending full
rights to the minority.
Without our relentless, inviolable commitment to equality
and minority rights, Canada would not be at the forefront in accepting
newcomers from all over the world, in making a virtue of our multicultural
nature – the complexity of ethnicities and beliefs that make up Canada, that
make us proud that we are where our world is going, not where it’s been.
Four years ago, I stood in this House and voted to
support the traditional definition of marriage. Many of us did. My misgivings
about extending the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples were a
function of my faith, my perspective on the world around us.
But much has changed since that day. We’ve heard from
courts across the country, including the Supreme Court. We’ve come to the
realization that instituting civil unions – adopting a “separate but
equal” approach – would violate the equality provisions of the Charter.
We’ve confirmed that extending the right of civil marriage to gays and
lesbians will not in any way infringe on religious freedoms.
And so where does that leave us? It leaves us staring in
the face of the Charter of Rights with but a single decision to make: Do we
abide by the Charter and protect minority rights, or do we not?
To those who would oppose this bill, I urge you to
consider that the core of the issue before us today is whether the rights of
all Canadians are to be respected. I believe they must be. Justice demands it.
Fairness demands it. The Canada we love demands it.
Mr. Speaker: In the 1960s, the government of Lester
Pearson faced opposition as it moved to entrench official bilingualism. But it
persevered, and it won the day. Its members believed it was the right thing to
do, and it was. In the 1980s, the government of Pierre Trudeau faced
opposition as it attempted to repatriate the Constitution and enshrine a
Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it persevered, and it won the day. Its
members believed it was the right thing to do, and it was.
There are times, Mr. Speaker, when we as Parliamentarians
can feel the gaze of history upon us. They felt it in the days of Pearson.
They felt it in the days of Trudeau. And we, the 308 men and women elected to
represent one of the most inclusive, just and respectful countries on the face
of this earth, feel it today.
There are few nations whose citizens cannot look to
Canada and see their own reflection. For generations, men and women and
families from the four corners of the globe have made the decision to chose
Canada to be their home. Many have come here seeking freedom—of thought,
religion and belief. Seeking the freedom simply to be.
The people of Canada have worked hard to build a country
that opens its doors to include all, regardless of their differences; a
country that respects all, regardless of their differences; a country that
demands equality for all, regardless of their differences.
If we do not step forward, then we step back. If we do
not protect a right, then we deny it. Mr. Speaker, together as a nation,
together as Canadians: Let us step forward.
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