The Liberal government's plan to legalize gay marriage left a deeply divided House of Commons after MPs narrowly defeated a Canadian Alliance motion last night that called on Parliament to preserve the definition of marriage as "the union of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."
The outcome of the vote, though the motion was largely symbolic, was a clear indication of the discord in Parliament and across the country over this emotional issue. Although Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government supports national legalization of same-sex marriage, more than 50 Liberal backbenchers voted in favour of the opposition motion.
"It should send a warning signal to them that they've got some big problems on this issue," Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said after his party's motion was defeated 137 to 132.
Mr. Harper, who said the vote was closer than he had expected, appeared to have achieved at least one goal: to embarrass the government by revealing the deep split in its ranks.
Justice Minister Martin Cauchon brushed aside the narrow margin of victory, saying that Parliament was moving in the right direction on the issue.
"It sends a clear message that Parliament supports the course of action that we have chosen as a government," he told reporters.
The narrow victory for the government came only after Speaker Peter Milliken broke a tie on a previous vote to defeat an Alliance amendment to the motion that would have it more palatable to Liberal MPs.
Mr. Milliken was forced to cast the deciding vote after MPs were deadlocked 134-134.
The original motion was identical to one introduced by the Alliance's predecessor, the Reform Party, in 1999.
It read: "That in the opinion of this House, it is necessary, in light of public debate around recent court decisions, to reaffirm that marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and that Parliament take all necessary steps within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to preserve this definition."
The amendment proposed eliminating the reference to "all necessary steps," which MPs viewed as a reference to the use of the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to override court decisions on gay marriage.
A few MPs switched their vote after the original amendment failed, concluding that they couldn't countenance the use of the notwithstanding clause on this issue.
House Leader Don Boudria said it is only the sixth tied vote in Parliament since Confederation.
Last night's vote sets the stage for a showdown over the government's bill legalizing same-sex marriage, which will not be tabled until September, 2004, at the earliest. The draft bill has been referred to the Supreme Court of Canada for a determination of its constitutionality. The court is expected to hear arguments in April.
Mr. Chrétien swept by reporters without comment as he left the House of Commons after last night's vote.
Like Mr. Chrétien, Paul Martin, widely expected to be the next prime minister, voted against the motion. He declared that the national fabric was strong enough to withstand the marriage debate.
Mr. Chrétien had declared a free vote on last night's motion though the Liberal cabinet was required to vote against it. Edmonton MP David Kilgour, the only cabinet minister to have expressed concern about same-sex marriage, was absent. In the end, about 30 per cent of Liberal MPs voted in favour of the Alliance motion.
Mr. Cauchon had a simple answer last night when asked to assess the importance of the massive swing in the Liberal vote compared to 1999, when the motion in favour of the traditional definition of marriage passed by a vote of 216 to 55. "Society evolved," he said.
"It's a pure reflection of the Canadian people," said Liberal caucus chair Stan Keyes, who voted against the Alliance motion but still remains undecided on how he will vote on the bill. "You had a 50-50 vote in the House of Commons that had to be broken by the Speaker. You have our elected Canadian citizens who are also very much down the middle."
He played down the narrow defeat. "This was a motion put forward by the Alliance. It was premature. It was totally unfair."
A total of 52 Liberal MPs voted with the Canadian Alliance, nearly one-third of the 170-member caucus.
Liberal backbencher Pat O'Brien, a vocal critic of the same-sex-marriage bill, said it's a warning sign the government can't ignore.
"Canadians are far more divided on this than the government would like to let on," said the MP from London, Ont. "Quite frankly, I think with such a narrow decision . . . there can be very little comfort in the government that this is just some minor thing, changing the definition of marriage."
He said it would not have been defeated had it not been for Mr. Milliken's tie-breaking vote on the amendment.
"It just reinforces how split the country is on this," Mr. O'Brien said.
"If the amendment had passed, there were a few Liberals at least who would have supported the main motion. They felt uncomfortable with the idea of the notwithstanding clause."
Progressive Conservative Leader Peter MacKay said: "I think this vote is very indicative of where the country is. This was a historic view. I believe in my view the controversy is far from over . . . it would be my preference that we actually had legislation to vote on."
Supporters of same-sex marriage declared a victory. "Parliament has spoken and Parliament has said no," NDP MP Svend Robinson said.
"Don't use the notwithstanding clause to override the most fundamental equality rights of gay and lesbians in Canadian."
The Canadian Alliance called the Liberal MPs hypocritical for voting against the motion, which they overwhelmingly supported in 1999.
Here is how MPs voted:
Note: Lack of a vote indicates an absence or abstention.
Where they stand
|ALCOCK, Reginald B.||No|
|ANDERSON, David L.||Yes|
|ASSAD, Mark Joseph||Yes|
|BAILEY, Roy H.||Yes|
|BARNES, Susan (Sue)||No|
|BENOIT, Leon Earl||Yes|
|BLAIKIE, William Alexander (Bill)||No|
|BLONDIN-ANDREW, Ethel Dorothy||No|
|BREITKREUZ, Garry W.||Yes|
|BRYDEN, John H.||Yes|
|BULTE, Sarmite D.||No|
|CACCIA, Charles L.||No|
|CARIGNAN, Jean Guy||No|
|CARROLL, M. Aileen|
|CASEY, William D. (Bill)||Yes|
|CHAMBERLAIN, Brenda Kay||Yes|
|CHATTERS, David Cameron||Yes|
|CHRÉTIEN, Jean Joseph Jacques||No|
|CLARK, Charles Joseph (Joe)||No|
|COLLENETTE, David Michael||No|
|COMUZZI, Joseph R. (Joe)|
|COPPS, Sheila Maureen||No|
|CUMMINS, John Martin||Yes|
|DAY, Stockwell Burt||Yes|
|DHALIWAL, Harbance Singh (Herb)||No|
|DISCEPOLA, Nunzio (Nick)||No|
|DOYLE, Norman E.||Yes|
|DROMISKY, Stanley Peter (Stan)||No|
|DUNCAN, John Morris||Yes|
|EASTER, Arnold Wayne||No|
|EFFORD, R. John||Yes|
|EGGLETON, Arthur C.||No|
|FINLAY, John Baird||No|
|FONTANA, Joseph Frank (Joe)||Yes|
|FORSETH, Paul Eugene||Yes|
|GALLAWAY, Roger John|
|GODFREY, John Ferguson||No|
|GOODALE, Ralph Edward||No|
|GOUK, James William (Jim)||Yes|
|GREWAL, Gurmant Singh||Yes|
|GREY, Deborah C.||Yes|
|HARPER, Stephen Joseph||Yes|
|HARRIS, Richard M. (Dick)||Yes|
|HILL, Jay D.||Yes|
|HILSTROM, Howard E.||Yes|
|JACKSON, Ovid L.||Yes|
|JOHNSTON, F. Dale||Yes|
|JORDAN, Joe Louis||No|
|KEYES, Stan Kazmierczak||No|
|KILGER, Robert (Bob)||Yes|
|KRAFT SLOAN, Karen||No|
|LEE, Derek Vincent||Yes|
|LEUNG, M. Sophia|
|LUNNEY, James D.||Yes|
|MACAULAY, Lawrence A.|
|MACKAY, Peter Gordon||Yes|
|MACKLIN, Paul Harold||No|
|MALHI, Gurbax Singh||Yes|
|MANLEY, John Paul||No|
|MARTIN, Keith P.||Yes|
|MAYFIELD, Philip William||Yes|
|MCGUIRE, Joseph Blair (Joe)||Yes|
|MCLELLAN, A. Anne||No|
|MEREDITH, Valerie (Val)||Yes|
|MILLIKEN, Peter Andrew Stewart|
|MILLS, Dennis Joseph|
|MILLS, Robert (Bob)||Yes|
|MITCHELL, Andrew (Andy)||No|
|NAULT, Robert Daniel||No|
|NYSTROM, Lorne Edmund||No|
|O'BRIEN, Lawrence D.|
|O'REILLY, John Francis||Yes|
|PAGTAKHAN, Rey D.||No|
|PALLISTER, Brian William||Yes|
|PENSON, Charles Frederick (Charlie)||Yes|
|PETERSON, James Scott (Jim)||No|
|PETTIGREW, Pierre S.||No|
|PHINNEY, Elizabeth (Beth)||No|
|PILLITTERI, Gary Orazio Vincenzo||Yes|
|REED, Julian Alexander Arnott||Yes|
|REYNOLDS, John Douglas||Yes|
|ROBINSON, Svend Johannes||No|
|SCHERRER, Hélène C.||Yes|
|SHEPHERD, Alexander James||No|
|SPELLER, Robert (Bob)||Yes|
|ST. DENIS, Brent||No|
|STECKLE, Paul Daniel||Yes|
|STOFFER, Peter Arend|
|STRAHL, Charles (Chuck)||Yes|
|SZABO, Paul John Mark||Yes|
|THOMPSON, Gregory Francis||Yes|
|TIRABASSI, Anthony (Tony)||Yes|
|TORSNEY, Patricia A. (Paddy)|
|UR, Rose-Marie Margaret||Yes|
|WAPPEL, Thomas (Tom) William||Yes|
|WAYNE, Elsie Eleanore||Yes|
|WHITE, Randy A.||Yes|
|WILLIAMS, John G.||Yes|