What Stephen Harper won’t tell you about same-sex marriage

It’s time for the PM to speak out, writes Adam Goldenberg
Adam Goldenberg

On June 11, 1963—fifty years ago this week—Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to keep two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering.

Five months earlier, in his inaugural address, Wallace had proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His one-man barricade in front of Foster Auditorium was one of many last stands.

Hindsight is cruel to those who choose the wrong side of history, but sometimes, the villains find their way across the tracks; Wallace’s bigotry had a short half-life, and “segregation forever” was not. By the end of the 1970s, he had apologized, and in his final campaign for the Governor’s Mansion, Wallace was the choice of more than ninety percent of Alabama’s black voters.

Wallace’s story is worth telling because all civil rights struggles are fundamentally alike; there is always someone barring the schoolhouse door, standing between citizens and the civil institutions to which they seek access on the same terms as everyone else. If George Wallace can pivot on that threshold, then anyone can.

Stephen Harper can, too.

This is not a perfect analogy, of course. The Prime Minister is not a racist. He has, however, been a different kind of segregationst—one who once stood in a doorway, pleading for exclusion as equality closed in.

On June 10, 2003—ten years ago this week—same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario.

“It is our view that the dignity of persons in same-sex relationships is violated by the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage,” the province’s Court of Appeal declared, in Halpern v. Canada. “Accordingly, we conclude that the common-law definition of marriage as ‘the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others’ violates [Section] 15(1) of the Charter.”

Other courts—in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia—had reached the same conclusion, but they had stayed the effect of their respective rulings to give Parliament time to respond. The Ontario Court of Appeal decided not to wait; same-sex marriage arrived in Ontario that same day.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was surprised by the ruling, but one week later the Government of Canada announced it would not appeal Halpern to the Supreme Court. In retrospect, the rest was just a matter of time. The Civil Marriage Act passed the House of Commons on June 28, 2005.

Enter Stephen Harper.

On the first day of the 2006 federal election campaign, the Conservative leader promised to put the Charter rights of gay Canadians to a free vote in Parliament. Harper’s position had been that civil unions would be a suitable substitute – “separate but equal,” you know – but the fact remains that just a simple majority could have been the beginning of the end of marriage equality.

The Conservatives won the election. The vote happened. But the majority of MPs had already moved on.

Stephen Harper soon did the same; the most the Prime Minister has since said on the subject is that he does not plan to say anything at all. “We have no intention of further opening or reopening this issue,” he said last year.

That is a mistake. Because, for the Prime Minister, one simple thing remains to be said.

For a leader who has so recently advocated for second-class citizenship for some Canadians, silent acceptance will never be the same as support, and indifference will always be a pathetic substitute for tolerance. Besides, tolerance itself is insufficient where equal rights are concerned.

So Stephen Harper should come right out and say it: I was wrong.

The legal effect would be nil, but that is hardly the point. Every gay teenager who is struggling to come out, every parent who is struggling to accept a gay child, every pastor or rabbi or imam or municipal counsellor or community elder who has ever stood in a pulpit or at a podium and preached anything less than total love and acceptance would hear the Prime Minister say what, for a decade, he has not — that all Canadians deserve every ounce of equal citizenship, and, in Canada, bigotry will never belong.

He has already almost certainly assured himself an historical footnote, as the last prime minister ever to oppose marriage equality, and the last federal party leader ever to fight an election on a promise to put the equality of Canadian citizens to a vote in the House of Commons. He should not let that be the end of the matter.

True, he has kept his promise not to reopen the issue. But if you think that “he may not support gay marriage, but he has not banned it, either” is an adequate reply, then replace “gay” with “interracial” and say it aloud.

Yes, his government has taken some laudable steps to promote LGBT rights and protect LGBT people around the world, but this only makes the Prime Minister’s omission harder to explain. Symbolic gestures matter, and Stephen Harper knows it—just ask the two new pandas at the Toronto Zoo.

The politics of Stephen Harper’s silence are easy to understand, of course; admitting his belated support for marriage equality would only stand to alienate the most extreme conservative voices in his own party. But tell that to George Wallace. Tell that to David Cameron, who is hosting Harper at the G8 Summit this week, and who has risked his own leadership to back marriage equality. Sure, there may still be bigots in our midst, but that only makes it more important for the Prime Minister to speak up.

They have a word for that: leadership.

Of course, there is one possibility that I have left unsaid: Stephen Harper might still believe that gay people are not entitled to the same rights as everybody else. That would certainly explain his refusal to say otherwise. If that is not the case, he should deny it. If it is, he should look up and wonder why, after a decade, the sky has yet to fall.

This has been a week of anniversaries in whose clashing images — of blocked doorways and tied knots — is reflected the long trajectory of history’s bending arc. Equality buoys us all, and we all have reason to celebrate.

So does Stephen Harper.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter, and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.