It’s one thing to be imprecise. It’s another to be confusing, frankly, when you have a lot of MPs looking to you for direction.

Patrick Gossage, former press secretary to Pierre Trudeau, August 21, 2003

For much of the past decade, Paul Martin has been leading a de facto caucus within the federal Liberal caucus. Many of his supporters wouldn’t take a trip to the Parliamentary rest room without first ensuring that his office approved it. According to the Hill Times, the number of MPs now supporting Martin’s leadership bid has now grown to a staggering 138 (over 80% out of a total caucus of 171).

You might think that such massive support would give him the ability to speak his mind whenever he wanted; instead it appears to have paralyzed his ability to take a stand, lest he offend any of those supporters.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, Martin has been tying himself in knots in trying to keep everyone happy. Last week, he told the Montreal Gazette “I am not going to tell MPs what to do& How do we deal with the evolution of society’s attitudes? How do we deal with the very legitimate views that are held on both sides of the issue?” If Martin believes that opponents of same-sex marriage are expressing “very legitimate views,” he must have been avoiding reading some of the absurd, hateful and mean-spirited comments of some of the MPs on his list of supporters — people like John McKay, Dan McTeague, Janko Peric, Tom Wappel and Pat OBrien, who are capable of making the Canadian Alliance sound almost moderate when talking about this issue.

McKay, for example, has warned that, “We’re taking an institution that’s 5,000 years old, it’s underpinned society for millennia and has been the chief way by which men relate to women, women relate to men, and children relate to their parents. And we’re just deconstructing it. We’re just blowing it up. There will be a significant societal impact.”

Pressed by CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen to explain exactly how recognizing same-sex marriages would negatively impact those in traditional marriage, however, McKay abandoned his talk of the apocalypse and could only respond, “I don’t know.”

So where does Martin stand on the issue? On both sides, apparently. “I support the government’s move, but I believe that in the course of discussion other options may be put on the table. Other options may well be put on the table. I think that those other options will be examined very seriously.”

The thing is, Paul, those other options have already BEEN considered. The Law Commission of Canada considered them in 2001, and it concluded, “The introduction of a registration scheme should not be seen as a policy alternative to reforming marriage.” The Ontario Court of Appeal considered them as well, and soundly rejected them.

It’s worth noting that some of the very people — including each of the five MPs listed above — now arguing that they could accept same-sex civil unions (as long as they aren’t called marriages) voted against that much more modest reform when Bill C-23, the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, was passed in 1999. To get around the obvious discrimination represented by ignoring the Charter of Rights, they would eliminate marriage altogether (so that no one would be able to have their marriage recognized by the state). My reading of the Ontario Court of Appeal decision suggests that this proposal would be found unconstitutional in record time.

Fundamentally, however, the flaw in the civil union proposal stems as much from its absolute absurdity than from any legal question. “Why get rid of marriage solely to make sure gays and lesbians can’t take part?” asks The Globe and Mail. Would the advocates of this idea favour closing a whites-only golf course rather than admitting non-white members? Would they discontinue minor sports programs for boys when a court ruled that girls must be allowed to play? Would they have supported eliminating all drinking fountains when segregated black and white drinking fountains were declared illegal? Like it or not, thats where the “separate but equal” line of argument leads.

As federal NDP leader Jack Layton noted in a recent speech to the Canadian Auto Workers, “Leadership is about more than winning a prize or collecting endorsements. It’s about taking a stand… When equality’s at stake, (Martin’s stance) is not good enough.”

No one is suggesting that Paul Martin should hold a gun to their heads to force his MPs to vote in favour of the legislation. But, he could at least make his own stance a whole lot clearer and actually try to convince some of them of the importance of upholding the Constitution. That would be a true sign of leadership. One that is sadly overdue.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...