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Canada urged to hold referendum on gay marriage
( 2003-08-21 11:00) (Agencies)

In a bid to limit the political fallout from the Canadian government's intention to legalize gay marriage, some legislators suggested on Wednesday that the issue be put to a national referendum.

So far Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his likely successor, Paul Martin, oppose the referendum idea, at least partly because of the stigma against such votes after two Quebec ballots on the issue of independence.

But it was a new element in 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. This thing is really heating up, folks. I've never seen an issue like this," Liberal Member of Parliament Dan McTeague, who opposes the legislation, told reporters during the annual summer meeting of the Liberal caucus.

McTeague said that if Canadian values had changed in favor of gay marriage, as the government has suggested, it would be good to test this out in a national plebiscite.

A senator from Quebec, Celine Hervieux-Payette, said that a vote on the issue could help the government determine how the public views marriage.

"Why don't we ask them? They will tell us what it means for them," she said.

The federal government decided in June not to appeal an Ontario court decision that expanded the definition of marriage in the province to include homosexuals, saying the heterosexual-only definition was unconstitutional. A British Columbia court has made a similar ruling, allowing gay marriages to go ahead 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 through Parliament is by no means certain and the issue would likely figure prominently in a federal election if it were called next year.

The decision to call that election will fall to Chretien's successor, who will be chosen at a leadership convention in November, with Chretien scheduled to retire in February. Martin, the former finance minister, is widely expected to succeed Chretien, and he 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 told reporters, though he did not elaborate.

Chretien said he opposed a referendum but would hear out those who are advocating it. "If they think it's a solution, I'm willing to listen."

But he said it was difficult to let people decide through such votes what rights should be accorded to minorities.

"If it's always the majority vote by the referendum, who will defend the minorities?" he asked journalists. "In government, we are there to protect every minority."

McTeague responded that while he was familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority, he was also concerned about having the courts define marriage.

National polls have shown an almost equal division between opponents and proponents of gay marriage, but the momentum has lately shifted in the direction of the opponents.

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