Canadian Justice minister seeks to calm same-sex marriage uproar

The ruling Conservatives wasted little time trying to douse a firestorm of concern over the legality of same-sex marriages for foreign couples who married in Canada. According to this Globe and Mail article:

All same sex marriages performed in Canada are legal and the law will be changed to ensure that divorce is readily available to non-residents who were married in the country, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says.

Same-sex marriage in Canada was legalized under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. Nicholson suggested some of the difficulty stems from a failure by the previous government to do its homework on the small matter of requiring one-year residency prior to seeking a divorce. (Which is required of all divorcing couples in Canada, by the way, not just same-sex non-residents.)

Quoted in the Ottawa Citizen, Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae rejected any blame:

“The only gap is the gap between the heads of Conservative cabinet ministers who have failed to live up to the best and finest traditions of Canada with respect to our traditions of tolerance.”

The controversy arose in the case of a non-Canadian lesbian couple married in Toronto in 2005. They are now seeking a divorce and do not meet the 1-year residency requirement. Responding to the case, a federal lawyer for the Justice Department argued their marriage was not actually legal, because they could not legally marry in their own place of residence.

Casting doubt on the validity of marriages performed in Canada generated immediate and strongly-felt concern, which Minister Nicholson sought to recognize in remarks on Friday.

The situation has been “completely unfair to those affected.” Mr. Nicholson said. “I want to make it clear that in our government’s view, these marriages are valid.”

Was this much ado over nothing? Perhaps. After all, there was no official policy change, just a submission – in one court case – that had yet to be ruled upon.

But don’t forget, the submission came from a federal attorney from the Justice Department. Defenders of same-sex marriage want to be sure that newly-won right is not undermined or cast into doubt, through inconsistencies in government positions.

There is still the vexing problem of the one-year residency requirement to get a Canadian divorce. Apparently, there is some discussion of crafting a specifically-tailored solution. Again, according to the Ottawa Citizen:

A senior government official told Postmedia News on Friday that the government will not be looking at changes to the Divorce Act, as amending that legislation could have complicated outcomes.

“That opens up a whole bunch of problems,” the official said. “(It could) make Canada kind of the divorce location of choice and that would put burdens on the courts here.”

Instead, the official said the government is exploring other options of dissolving marriages for same-sex couples who do not live in Canada, a concept that Nicholson has echoed.

“I will be looking at options to clarify the law so that marriages performed in Canada can be undone in Canada,” Nicholson said in a statement on Thursday.

The Ottawa Citizen also ran this interesting discussion between political observers Andrew Potter, Kady O’malley and Scott Reid, mulling over what just happened – and what may be ahead.

Was the court case an intentional back-door attempt to undermine same-sex marriage – as some Harper critics are alleging? Reid is skeptical:

This kind of thing happens all the time in government. I used to call it a “what in hell” morning. You’d wake up, open the paper and scream, “What in hell is this” so loud that you didn’t need to call the Clerk of the Privy Council. He could hear you from your kitchen table. So, without knowing for certain, I’m entirely positive this could have happened without political instigation. However, it doesn’t much matter. In the end, the government owns this and now it may face the prospect of having to introduce legislative remedies dealing with same-sex marriage and that is sweet irony. Avoiding social conservative hot potatoes has been a cornerstone of Harper’s leadership. Now he’s jammed.

There is opposition to same-sex marriage in Canada. But the issue just doesn’t seem to generate the same degree of heat as it does in the U.S. Why? Well, Canadians do place a high value on tolerance and inclusion and are arguably less conservative (overall) than their neighbors to the south.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the Conservative Government plans to diffuse the issue without irritating its own base.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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