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Jack Knox: Canada leads U.S. to the altar on gay marriage

Nov 08 2012

Turned on the TV Wednesday, caught a roaring row about gay marriage.

What is this, 2003? Must be watching a rerun channel, I thought. Guess this means Cheers is on next.

Here in Canada, same-sex marriage is last decade's debate. Not so south of the border, where a turn of the tide was one of the bigger stories to emerge from election night.

It was no coincidence that when the U.S. gay-marriage movement finally made a breakthrough Tuesday, three of the four states involved abutted the Canadian border. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved same-sex marriage. Those in Minnesota defeated a constitutional amendment that would have banned it.

It was the first time the voters, not just judges or legislators, had given their blessing to such unions, which had been rejected in 30 previous elections. Of the nine states in which gay marriage will now be legal, six border Canada.

Our immediate neighbours' fears were eased by the Canadian experience.

Cats did not lie down with dogs when the Great White North allowed Bob to marry Doug. Homosexuality did not become mandatory in schools. Basically nothing happened.

"Canada has been a good example for us," Andy Grow, a spokesman for the group behind the Washington campaign, said from Seattle on Wednesday.

If Canada did break trail for the U.S., then American gays - actually, anyone who believes in civil rights - should give a nod of thanks to a couple from Vancouver Island.

Jim Egan and Jack Nesbit were a pair of Comox men who made history when they went to court to argue that same-sex couples should get the same pension benefits as straight couples. While they ultimately lost their particular fight by a split vote of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1995, the ruling did establish that Canadians could not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.

After 52 years together, Egan and Nesbit died within months of each other in 2000. They never did get the chance to wed, but the landmark court decision paved the way for others.

This took courage back then, flying in the face of convention. Remember that it wasn't until 1967, when justice minister Pierre Trudeau famously declared, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," that Canada moved to decriminalize homosexuality.

The Egan-Nesbit case spurred many to challenge longheld beliefs. In 2000, after two Victoria women were denied a marriage licence, the Times Colonist weighed in. "Gays have right to wed" declared the headline over the May 29 editorial that year. If other Canadian newspapers endorsed same-sex marriage before the TC, we didn't know about it. Neither did many readers, to whom it was akin to finding Mr. Rogers smoking a fatty.

By 2003, same-sex marriages were legal in B.C. In 2005, Parliament's passage of the Civil Marriage Act made Canada the fourth country to make them legal nationwide. After Stephen Harper's new minority Conservative minority government tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn that decision in 2006, the prime minister declared the issue dead. Time to move on.

Which we did. It's not as though there is unanimity on the issue, but neither is there the fear and anger that occasionally infected the debate. When the United Church of Canada elected its first openly gay moderator this August, it barely made the news. This week, the RCMP was widely praised when a score of gay and lesbian B.C. Mounties were featured in an It Gets Better video aimed at youth.

We forget that most of the rest of the world isn't there yet. On Wednesday, French President Fran├žois Hollande advanced a controversial bill that would make France just the 12th, and largest, country to legalize gay marriage.

It actually was a big deal when the U.S. results hinted at a shift in thinking Tuesday. ("The Republican Party can't be the party that thinks one of the biggest problems is that there's too much love in the world," said Republican political commentator Alex Castel-lanos, appearing on CNN on election night.)

And if it was the Canadian experience that influenced the American shift, remember that it was a Comox couple who helped change Canada.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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