By HUGH WINSOR
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
NORTH BAY -- One of the toughest challenges for a lawyer in court, or for a prime minister in front of his party, is to make a case he does not really believe in.
That was the position Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was in last night when he tried to persuade the members of his caucus to swallow their concern and support his government's plans to legalize same-sex marriages, while admitting he came to the government's acceptance of same-sex marriages only reluctantly.
Mr. Chrétien made the best case he could for the government's decision to submit a reference to the Supreme Court rather than appeal the rulings of the Courts of Appeal in Ontario and British Columbia in support of same-sex marriages. But we know his heart is not in it.
Same-sex petitioners in the courts forced both the issue and the timing upon Ottawa, and Mr. Chrétien's preferred course would have been to stick with the preamble to a bill passed by Parliament in 2000 that defined marriage as "the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."
Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, a young Quebec comer the PM admires and trusts, persuaded the Prime Minister to accept the change in direction. He did this both in one-on-one sessions and at the cabinet meeting several weeks ago when the government had to decide what to do. Not only was it right, he argued, there wasn't much choice.
Justice Department officials said the government would probably lose an appeal at the Supreme Court, so better to take the initiative than have a solution imposed.
As the Prime Minister said last evening, "We need to be guided by how court after court has been interpreting the Charter of Rights. And the courts have been telling us that the notion of separate but equal has no place in Canada."
While making the case for the government option in terms of supporting the Constitution (a deliberately benign phrasing) and warning his party that its opponents in the Canadian Alliance want to undermine the Charter, the Prime Minister pointedly rejected the big stick. MPs can vote according to their consciences.
He admitted how difficult the issue has been for him. "Believe me, for someone of my generation, born and brought up in the Catholic rural Quebec of my youth, this has been a very difficult issue. But I have learned over 40 years in public life that society evolves and that the concept of human rights evolves often more quickly than some of us might have predicted."
Even though he doesn't like it, politicians have to live up to their responsibilities, "and none of these are more essential than protecting the Constitution and the fundamental rights it guarantees to all Canadians."
It is too early to tell how much influence the PM will have on the eventual vote, but an indication of the difficulties the approach faces comes from Bob Speller, Liberal MP from the rural Ontario riding of Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant. Mr. Speller has received more than 500 calls, e-mails and letters on the issue. Only 16 support the government's position.
While emotions are running high at this meeting, the tone is not nearly as explosive as a similar event in Saguenay last August where most of the caucus was bent on regicide until the PM announced his resignation. In the intervening 12 months, the caucus has mellowed somewhat and the PM can accurately claim that the government has accomplished much of his program.
Nevertheless, it would not be a Chrétien speech without a touch of ambiguity. He concluded with a teaser that could mean little or everything. Only two prime ministers in Canadian history, Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson, have turned their party over to a new leader who has won the next election, he said. "I want to be the third, and I will do everything to make sure the new leader will have the best conditions possible to win a fourth consecutive Liberal majority government."
Should we expect a new love-in with Paul Martin and an earlier-than-planned departure?