Advocacy News - Gay Marriage: The story of a Canadian social revolution
June 22, 2021
Gay Marriage: The Story of a Canadian Social Revolution
Reviewed by Michael Hendricks
At last a history of the battle for same-sex marriage in Canada has been published! Sylvain Larocque, a Canadian Press reporter who covers Parliament Hill, has put together the first chronology of the events starting from the two old men in Montreal who took a shot in the dark in 1998 up to royal assent in 2005.
Of course, as one of those two old men, I have a special interest in Larocque's book and a good knowledge of what really happened.
This history, besides being the only published account to date, is a "must read" for anyone interested in the subjects of gay marriage and the reality of the Canadian political system under the Canadian Human Rights Charter. Starting with early attempts by gays to marry in Canada going back to the 1974, the book documents in some detail the start of the recent wave of struggle and then provides a blow-by-blow description of the court challenges and the political battles in Parliament.
Because of Larocque's privileged position in the Ottawa Press Gallery and the access this affords, he was able to complement the published reports of the political battles through on-the-record and some "confidential" interviews with the principal protagonists on the Hill. One important player, Martin Cauchon, Justice Minister under Jean Chrétien, the man who led the federal government's legal battle against gay marriage, even wrote the foreword to the book.
The weaknesses of Larocque's "history" are directly related to its strengths. On one hand, it is a very complete chronology with descriptions and dates for all the political and judicial events. We have to thank him for clearly recording this complicated information for posterity. On the other hand, although it is beautifully written in both French and English, the book reads a bit like a tour through the Canadian Press clippings file. Long on facts and statements from the political players, it is somewhat short on analysis. With so much information to record, it seems the author had trouble seeing the forest for the trees.
But the most problematic parts of Gay Marriage are probably unavoidable. The fact that the story is told as seen from the author's perch in the Ottawa Press Gallery has resulted in a narrative that reflects typical Ottawa navel gazing. Larocque writes as if the decisions that drove this social revolution occurred in the corridors of federal power. In fact, the original version in French is titled "Mariage gai: Les coulisses d'une révolution sociale" (Gay marriage: behind the scenes of a social revolution").
The movement to full civil equality for gays and lesbians in Canada though civil marriage was actually played out across the country with many, many actors over a period of years. This account pretends that what the deputies and senators, plus the pro- and anti-marriage lobbies in Ottawa, thought and did really drove the story.This is, of course, not true: it was the court challenges and the Charter that made the difference.
At best, the Ottawa dramas were a sideshow. In recounting the multiple motions and bills presented in Parliament, Larocque records in some detail the idiotic debates within the Liberal Party and the blatant homophobia of the Reform-Alliance-Conservative Party as if they were significant milestones in the story. Yet he also quotes Jean Chrétian stating the simple truth at a meeting of the Liberal caucus in August 2003 in North Bay:
"Even if the (marriage) bill is defeated, the law stands. That's the reality."
This Ottawa tendency for navel gazing is particularly evident in Larocque's recounting of how Martin Cauchon was a "secret supporter" of gay marriage from almost the beginning of the court battles. The only source for this anecdote is Cauchon's own testimony to Larocque. Those of us who witnessed the battles, the couples and their lawyers, never saw any indication that this was true. Actually, the federal government's ridiculous defense of "traditional marriage" became increasing vacuous as we moved up the judicial ladder from trial court to appeal.
The fact that Cauchon cut off the appeals so that the couples could never get a binding decision from the Supreme Court is presented as well intentioned but never analyzed. Yet the result is, of course, the situation we are now living: a right-wing government claiming that, since the highest court in the land has not ruled on the legal questions, same-sex civil marriage is somehow not really constitutional law.
The other weakness of this account is that it doesn't tell us much about the historic battles led by the couples that were parties to the court challenges. There is little mention of the gay and lesbian players in British Columbia but lots about the Ottawa-based gay lobby EGALE that participated in the BC court case.
And there is hardly a mention of the incredible role of Joe Varnell and Kevin Bourassa whose grassroots community organizing made a big difference. For example, in 2002, Bourassa and Varnell published a book about their story --- they were married at the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto on January 14th, 2001 --- called "Just Married". Then, as they are great communicators, they used their national book promotion tour to sell gay marriage in every corner of the country. As celebrities, they were invited to visit many communities, particularly smaller ones. Financing their travels out of their own pocket, they hop scotched across Canada, leaving behind a solid string of support networks.
As someone who followed the opinion polls on this issue for years, I saw the numbers take off with the MCC marriage and climb as this energetic and fearless duo toured the land. (They also built the extremely popular and complete website where you are reading this review.)
Bottom line: "Gay Marriage" by Sylvain Larocque is a well-written major contribution to gay and lesbian history in Canada though it has shortcomings as a comprehensive history. However, when it comes to the view from Ottawa, it is very complete and a damn good read with interesting character studies of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
But the reader must remember that people on the Hill think Canada turns around them; those of us out here in the boondocks know that Canada is a lot more than that.