National Column: Canada’s patchy history with LGBTQ rights

by Chantal Hébert

Mere hours after the Orlando mass shooting it was already clear that its political fallout in the United States would be both divisive and significant. The tragedy is inflaming an already polarized presidential contest. It may yet turn out to be a watershed moment in the campaign.

The echo effect of this tremor, if any, on the Canadian political landscape will be mild.

It is not that Canada is immune from hate crimes or from terrorism. Parliament Hill was the scene of a shooting less than two years ago. An Orlando-style tragedy could happen here. In fact, it did. I am writing this column in the city that was the site, 26 years ago, of a shooting that cost 14 young women their lives at Montreal’s Polytechnique.

Like the patrons of the Orlando gay club, they too had not been chosen at random. Haters did not start to turn into killers with the advent of Daesh terrorism. Nor are Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) the first propagandists to glorify unspeakable acts of violence or to use them for their own benefit. But while the Orlando episode has struck a multitude of politically raw nerves in the U.S., it has mostly highlighted the fundamentally consensual nature of Canadian politics.

Take the issue of gay rights. Almost two dozen American states are currently attempting to pass legislation to restrict them. Parsing through presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s early comments on the Orlando mass shootings, one would be hard-pressed to find more than a passing acknowledgement of the fact that the victims of this weekend’s massacre were members of the LGBTQ community.

Just last month in this country, Canada’s Conservatives voted by a margin of two to one to strike the heterosexual definition of marriage from their policy book. The would-be and declared candidates for Stephen Harper’s succession all came out in support of accepting – if only implicitly – the decade-old marriage rights of same-sex couples.

South of the border, a similar move by the Republican Party would be seen as a hugely bold step. In Canada, it was considered an overdue move. The federal Conservative party may have been the last mainstream political organization to jettison the notion that access to marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples.

The current consensus on gay rights in Canada did not emerge overnight, nor did it come easily.

When former prime minister Jean Chretien set out to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1996, a pitched battle ensued in the House of Commons.

So divided were his own MPs that Chretien had to allow a free vote to avoid a rebellion of the social conservatives within his caucus. In hindsight, it is hard to believe that 53 MPs voted against protecting Canada’s LGBTQ community from discrimination or that about the same number believed the risks to freedom of speech offset the need to protect gay Canadians – as a group – from hate speech.

At second reading of the bill, more than one Reform MP brought forth a riding poll to illustrate how overwhelmingly voters opposed the legislation.

There were dire warnings that Chretien’s move would eventually lead to granting marriage rights to same-sex couples with attending damage to the institution. (A majority in the House subsequently voted to affirm the man-woman definition of marriage. That stance was only overturned after the courts found it to breach the charter of rights and freedoms.)

No one in 1996 imagined that the issue of gay rights would one day soon come up in the context of a global war against Islamic fanatics. As it happens, the steps taken over the past two decades in Canada are making for a sturdier social fabric today.

In the U.S., Trump has been using the Orlando shooting to bolster his anti-Muslim, anti-immigration rhetoric. In Canada, in the wake of the Orlando shootings on Sunday, Don Valley West Liberal MP Rob Oliphant tweeted: “Needs to be shared: I am an openly gay MP elected by the largest Muslim community in Canada.”

By coincidence, two reports urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to issue an official apology for the discrimination long endured by Canada’s LGBTQ community have just landed on the government’s desk. Post-Orlando, it may be hard to ignore those calls.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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