Same-sex marriage was the subject of a brief media tempest last week when an unidentified foreign lesbian couple found that the wedding they celebrated in Toronto in 2005 was a vanishing one-way street: half Brigadoon, half bear trap. Seeking a divorce from a Canadian court, they met with the surprising argument from a lawyer for the federal government that there was no way to give them one—because they weren’t really married. The same-sex nuptials are not legally recognized by the jurisdiction in which the couple lives, and so, under well-established principles of what lawyers call “comity,” that means the marriage contract is void in Canada, too.
This sad tale was reported by the Globe and Mail, which described the Crown’s stance as a Conservative-driven “reversal of policy” on same-sex couples. In fact, as a chorus of lawyers from across the political spectrum hastened to reassure us, the government’s position in the case was settled law. It reposes upon a mountain of precedent, and is not specific to same-sex marriage at all. A heterosexual couple making the same argument under analogous circumstances would have gotten the same dismissive answer; Canada permits first-cousin marriages, for example, while most U.S. states don’t.
It’s not clear why a couple seeking a divorce should be unhappy to discover they don’t need one. Former gay-marriage tourists were nonetheless troubled to learn that their wedded bliss was no longer “legal”; influential sex columnist Dan Savage, who got hitched in Vancouver in 2005, complained of being “divorced overnight.” Our Conservative majority government could hardly move fast enough to reassure Savage. Before the sun had set on the Globe’s story, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson had responded, affirming the validity of non-resident same-sex marriages and promising to repair the “gap” in the law.
This, in a sense, completes and crowns the story of gay marriage in Canada—a social reform that went from near-complete implausibility to reality in a matter of five or six years. Such a rapid political change ought to be, in theory, a model of offensiveness to conservatives. Same-sex marriage is, viewed against the full background of Western civilization, an almost total novelty. It was established in Canada practically instantaneously, and largely through judicial activism, rather than at the ballot box. Large numbers of Conservatives object to it on unshakable grounds of religious revelation. Yet the Conservatives, despite having a majority in the House of Commons, have not only accepted gay marriage, they are defending it vigorously.
The Tories are doing this for pretty much the same reason they are plastering the word “royal” onto anything bigger than a breadbox that stands still for 30 seconds. Canadians are proud of having accepted same-sex marriage quickly, as an urgent question of giving justice to a minority. Like the monarchy, gay marriage serves to contrast Canada with the U.S. (Like the monarchy, it is appealing to tourists.) Same-sex marriage became an element of our national identity almost overnight. Conservatives, by and large, have followed their leader in accepting this fact of life and setting aside ideology.
Which is funny, because the Conservatives are supposed to be the arch-ideologues in our politics; it’s the Liberals who are traditionally seen as being ultra-pragmatic and fluid. The same-sex pseudo-scandal thus made for an interesting prelude to the Liberals’ biennial convention in Ottawa. Attendees couldn’t say enough about renewal and change—but mostly delivered more of the same-old-same-old to the non-Liberal audience. They showed so little appetite for the difficult facts of life that they were virtually ready to burn Peter C. Newman in effigy just for describing them. Michael Ignatieff gave a farewell address that made no apology for particular mistakes, and was told, in the spirit of unity, that he hadn’t really made any. Paul Martin wandered around boasting of his fiscal record to any camera that would doff a lens cap. The devastated Liberal caucus held a Q & A session and showed zero willingness to reconsider long-standing positions. Hate-crimes legislation? Still a peachy idea! Kyoto? Right thing to do! Rehabilitative penology? More important than ever!
Asked about agricultural “supply management” at the Q & A, Grit agriculture critic Wayne Easter not only defended it but boasted that the Liberals “had invented it.” Supply management might be good or bad, but should the Liberals still be defending programs and policies on the grounds that Liberals invented them? Ideology can dull the wits, but this kind of tribalism, the commitment to a tradition for nothing but its own sake, is even duller-witted. We live in a Conservative Canada today, not because Canada is innately Conservative, but because the Conservatives have adapted—sometimes in counterintuitive, painful ways—to fit Canada. The Liberals cannot aspire to competitiveness until they demonstrate that the same thing is at least possible for them.