Friday, February 18, 2005

Oh, Canada!

Don't get me wrong, I love Canada. I've been a frequent traveler to Montreal, and I think it is one of the most underrated cities in the world. I've also been to Quebec and was amazed to see the beauty of such old world European architecture in the Western Hemisphere (old by comparison to what is found in the US). Some of my favorite musicians, actors, and comedians hail from Canada - from old troupes like the Kids In The Hall, to new acts like the Arcade Fire, who for my money put out one of the best records of 2004.

So, to any Canadians visiting this site, don't be offended when I say that I love America more. But I am tired of playing second fiddle to our little neighbor to the north. Why is it that Canada has to lead by example, shaming us - the United States of America - as we are left to sulk ignominiously in our backwards thinking? That's not good enough for me. I want to be the ones out in front, setting the standard for the world - yes, Canada included. It's the competitive part of me that chants U-S-A, U-S-A when team America is competing on the world stage, the urge to extend my index finger and rush the camera, shouting hysterically, "We're #1" with my face painted red, white, and blue.

But in some ways, we're not #1. Canada is, though, and I'm not only talking about hockey. If you want to catch a glimpse of what cutting edge progressivism looks like, a real dedication to civil rights, read this
enlightened speech by Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin (via Steve Clemons). It is Martin's eloquent defense of Canada's Civil Marriage Act, which recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry. His words lit in me a fire of inspiration, but I was burning with envy at the same time. It is a lesson from the student to the teacher.

Martin addresses how "faith" should interact with public service and citizenship in a nation of rights and laws:

Religious leaders have strong views both for and against this legislation. They should express them. Certainly, many of us in this House, myself included, have a strong faith, and we value that faith and its influence on the decisions we make. But all of us have been elected to serve here as Parliamentarians. And as public legislators, we are responsible for serving all Canadians and protecting the rights of all Canadians.

We will be influenced by our faith but we also have an obligation to take the widest perspective -- to recognize that one of the great strengths of Canada is its respect for the rights of each and every individual, to understand that we must not shrink from the need to reaffirm the rights and responsibilities of Canadians in an evolving society.
Mr. President, what would Jesus do? And is that even a valid question (despite the fact that you somehow seem to get the answer confused in so many respects)? Martin discusses why guarantees of rights must supersede the will of the majority:

The second argument ventured by opponents of the bill is that government ought to hold a national referendum on this issue. I reject this - not out of a disregard for the view of the people, but because it offends the very purpose of the Charter.

The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority.
Karl Rove: stop playing electoral games with human rights and dignity. That is a dangerous game to be playing, and one that is morally bankrupt. Martin, again, on the inadequacy of "civil unions":
...some have counseled the government to extend to gays and lesbians the right to "civil union." This would give same-sex couples many of the rights of a wedded couple, but their relationships would not legally be considered marriage. In other words, they would be equal, but not quite as equal as the rest of Canadians.

Mr. Speaker, the courts have clearly and consistently ruled that this option would offend the equality provisions of the Charter. For instance, the British Columbia Court of Appeal stated that, and I quote: "Marriage is the only road to true equality for same-sex couples. Any other form of recognition of same-sex relationships ...falls short of true equality."

Put simply, we must always remember that "separate but equal" is not equal.
An argument why we should never enshrine bigotry in the very documents designed to protect our rights:

For a prime minister to use the powers of his office to explicitly deny rather than affirm a right enshrined under the Charter would serve as a signal to all minorities that no longer can they look to the nation's leader and to the nation's Constitution for protection, for security, for the guarantee of their freedoms. We would risk becoming a country in which the defence of rights is weighed, calculated and debated based on electoral or other considerations.

The Charter is a living document, the heartbeat of our Constitution. It is also a proclamation. It declares that as Canadians, we live under a progressive and inclusive set of fundamental beliefs about the value of the individual. It declares that we all are lessened when any one of us is denied a fundamental right.

We cannot exalt the Charter as a fundamental aspect of our national character and then use the notwithstanding clause to reject the protections that it would extend. Our rights must be eternal, not subject to political whim.
Mr. President, please leave our Constitution alone, and stop tossing it about like a political football. Even introducing the concept of a Constitutional amendment to establish discrimination is a bad precedent to set.

Martin on the nature of rights, the slippery slope, and how these ideals impact society as a whole, and the ability to be perceived as the "city on the hill":
To those who value the Charter yet oppose the protection of rights for same-sex couples, I ask you: If a prime minister and a national government are willing to take away the rights of one group, what is to say they will stop at that? If the Charter is not there today to protect the rights of one minority, then how can we as a nation of minorities ever hope, ever believe, ever trust that it will be there to protect us tomorrow?

My responsibility as Prime Minister, my duty to Canada and to Canadians, is to defend the Charter in its entirety. Not to pick and choose the rights that our laws shall protect and those that are to be ignored. Not to decree those who shall be equal and those who shall not. My duty is to protect the Charter, as some in this House will not.

Let us never forget that one of the reasons that Canada is such a vibrant nation, so diverse, so rich in the many cultures and races of the world, is that immigrants who come here - as was the case with the ancestors of many of us in this chamber - feel free and are free to practice their religion, follow their faith, live as they want to live. No homogenous system of beliefs is imposed on them.

When we as a nation protect minority rights, we are protecting our multicultural nature. We are reinforcing the Canada we value. We are saying, proudly and unflinchingly, that defending rights - not just those that happen to apply to us, not just that everyone approves of, but all fundamental rights - is at the very soul of what it means to be a Canadian.
Martin addresses the praiseworthy ability of democracies, dedicated to the embrace of civil rights, to evolve in order to fully actualize their ideals. What Langston Hughes rhapsodized about when exhorting America to be, in practice, the place that it aspires to be in theory. "Let America Be America Again," said Hughes.
Why is the Charter so important, Mr. Speaker? We have only to look at our own history. Unfortunately, Canada's story is one in which not everyone's rights were protected under the law. We have not been free from discrimination, bias, unfairness. There have been blatant inequalities.

Remember that it was once thought perfectly acceptable to deny women "personhood" and the right to vote. There was a time, not that long ago, that if you wore a turban, you couldn't serve in the RCMP. The examples are many, but what's important now is that they are part of our past, not our present.

Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and our laws evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as we understand it today.

For gays and lesbians, evolving social attitudes have, over the years, prompted a number of important changes in the law. Recall that, until the late 1960s, the state believed it had the right to peek into our bedrooms. Until 1977, homosexuality was still sufficient grounds for deportation. Until 1992, gay people were prohibited from serving in the military. In many parts of the country, gays and lesbians could not designate their partners as beneficiaries under employee medical and dental benefits, insurance policies or private pensions. Until very recently, people were being fired merely for being gay.

Today, we rightly see discrimination based on sexual orientation as arbitrary, inappropriate and unfair. Looking back, we can hardly believe that such rights were ever a matter for debate. It is my hope that we will ultimately see the current debate in a similar light; realizing that nothing has been lost or sacrificed by the majority in extending full rights to the minority.
So Canada gets this speech, this exalted language and imagery, this poignant homage to liberal democracy and the belief in fundamental human dignity, and what does America get? This. Profoundly, profoundly disappointing.

There is no doubt in my mind that the force of history is pushing for the recognition of the basic humanity of all sexual orientations. Trust me, state sponsored discrimination against homosexuals will not last forever. It is one of the last great frontiers of civil rights, at least in America (and Canada). One day, this nation will look back on this period of divisiveness with guilt and shame. It will be placed on the same side of the ledger as the other examples of crimes, misdemeanors, and setbacks in the continuing learning process of what it means to be America. My Republican friends often assure me that the religious-right has little power in the Republican Party. They tell me that they are marginal voices. Fine. Prove it. Rein in the leader of your Party and his cronies on Capitol Hill who so openly tout such mean spiritedness.

To the Democrats, I say the time is now. No more half stepping about civil unions, let's be forthright about this one. Hemming and hawing around the margins of issues doesn't work. Sure, in certain contexts compromise and incremental change is needed, but sometimes you have to be bold. At the very least, we must be willing to infuse this debate with a rhetorical backbone. Will we lose votes in the South? Probably,'s sort of happening anyway. Let's give the people something to be inspired about, let's show them the strength of our convictions. Let's seek to change some attitudes, to educate, to bring some opponents of human rights for homosexuals over to our perspective - the same way we have succeeded with minority rights, women's rights, and other human rights in general. It's hard work, and risky too, but that is what we as Democrats are all about.

At the very least, when the slow wheel of history turns in our favor on this issue (and it is turning), then we will be able to proudly say: We were at the forefront of this movement. We were the civil rights pioneers. The American people will know what the Democratic Party stands for. We will be known as the Party that fights for civil rights. A tepid endorsement of civil unions will deprive us of our just rewards when the voting public matures. Above simple electoral concerns, though, it is just the right thing to do. If we truly want to spread democracy abroad, let's strengthen it at home. North America's other champion of democracy:
To those who would oppose this bill, I urge you to consider that the core of the issue before us today is whether the rights of all Canadians are to be respected. I believe they must be. Justice demands it. Fairness demands it. The Canada we love demands it...

We embrace freedom and equality in theory, Mr. Speaker. We must also embrace them in fact. [emphasis added]
Those are fighting words.

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