In a bid to limit the political fallout from the Canadian government's intention to legalize same-sex marriage, some legislators attending a three-day conference this week said that the issue should be put to a national referendum. So far Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his likely successor, Paul Martin,
oppose the referendum idea. But the idea of putting the issue to a vote is adding fuel to a debate that has polarized the ruling Liberal Party in Parliament as well as public opinion across the country.
"My sense is that we're on a collision course with the electorate on this issue," Dan McTeague, a Liberal member of Parliament who opposes the legislation, said at the summer meeting of the Liberal caucus. "This thing is really heating up, folks. I've never seen an issue like this." McTeague said that if Canadian values have changed in favor of gay marriage, as the government has suggested, it would be good to test this in a national plebiscite. Celine Hervieux-Payette, a senator from Quebec, said a vote could help the government determine how the public views same-sex marriage. "Why don't we ask them?" she said. "They will tell us what it means for them."
The federal government decided in June against appealing an Ontario court decision that expanded the definition of marriage in the province to include gay men and lesbians, saying the heterosexual-only definition was unconstitutional. A British Columbia court made a similar ruling, with the moves allowing gay marriages to proceed in those provinces. Ottawa has drafted legislation to make the new definition apply across the country and asked the supreme court to review the proposed law. But the bill's
passage in Parliament is not certain, and the issue probably would figure prominently in a federal election if it were called next year. The decision to call that election would fall to Chretien's successor, who is to be chosen at a leadership convention in November, with Chretien scheduled to retire in February. Martin, who is widely expected to succeed Chretien, also favors ushering gay marriage legislation through Parliament. "There are issues which are obviously open to referendums. There are other issues which are the responsibility of parliamentarians to deal with, and this is one of them," he said, though he did not elaborate.
National opinion polls have indicated an almost equal division between opponents and proponents of gay marriage.