Brent St. Denis recalls the same-sex marriage debate of 10 years ago

Former Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Brent St. Denis speaks to a class of Grade 10 students at Manitoulin Secondary School about the importance of tolerance and accommodation in the building of a modern civil society. photo by Michael Erskine

M’CHIGEENG— Brent St. Denis was the Liberal Member of Parliament for the riding of Algoma-Manitoulin in 2005 when Bill C-38, the Civil Marriage Act, came up for debate in the House of Commons and he was faced with what he said was one of the easiest and most rewarding decisions of his long parliamentary career—although his vote to support the bill legalizing same-sex marriage came with repercussions in both his personal and his public life.

Mr. St. Denis was honoured at the recent Manitoulin Secondary School Pride Day celebrating the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Marriage Act when he sat down with The Expositor to recall the events that led up to, and succeeded, the passage of the bill.

“Although the passage of the bill took place under Prime Minister Paul Martin, a lot of the work actually took place during Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s time in office,” he recalled. “In fact, the earlier Canadian Human Rights Act (commonly referred to as the Hate Crimes Bill) was a precursor to the civil marriage debate. That started in early 1995, two years into the first Chretien mandate, Chretien really started it.”

In what might seem an odd conjunction, many faith groups opposed the passage of the Hate Crimes Bill. “With great respect many faith groups spoke against it,” admitted Mr. St. Denis. The former MP pointed out that, with passage of that bill, it would be illegal for religious schools to fire a teacher based on their sexual orientation.

During the debate on the Canadian Human Rights Act in the House of Commons Mr. St. Denis quoted from an editorial in the Wednesday, March 27, 1996 edition of The Manitoulin Expositor, entitled ‘discrimination irrational.’

“’Those who would argue against adding such a right to the human rights act (where it will join bans against discrimination on the basis of age, gender and race) will cite, for example, the contentious issue the Ontario New Democratic Party raised when, as Ontario’s governing party, it introduced legislation that would have recognized in law the same gender relationships and, in particular, would have opened the doors to same gender family adoptions,” was one of the passages quoted.

Following the passage of the changes to the Criminal Code definitions of hate crimes, the issue generally died down for a number of years. “It came back in the 2000s,” recalled Mr. St. Denis. “A number of provinces had already legalized same-sex marriages; Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec spring to mind,” he said. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the Americas and the third jurisdiction in the world (after The Netherlands and Belgium) to legalize same-sex unions. The formal housekeeping of the regulations would take until late February 2005 with the passage of the Spousal Relationships Statute Law Amendment Act to be formalized.

While Mr. St. Denis was fully in favour of the bill from its inception, the bulk of the Conservative Party voted against its passage (former Foreign Affairs Minister and Harper stalwart John Baird being a notable exception in the Tory fold). “To be fair, there were five or six in our party who voted against it,” said Mr. St. Denis. “Every caucus had a couple that went the other way.”

“For me, it wasn’t hard and I am not going to pretend that it was,” said Mr. St. Denis. “It was the most interesting issue I dealt with during my time in office. There were strong opinions of people on both sides.”

Mr. St. Denis noted that opposition to the bill “was not grounded in the tenets of building a civil society” but rather in religion. That foundation for opposing the bill was largely its undoing, as the concept of the separation of church and state had long gained ascendancy within the Canadian public identity.

“One of the best events of my political life came in 2005,” recalled Mr. St. Denis. It was as he was filling his gas tank at a gas station in Elliot Lake. “I noticed someone coming around to me from the other side,” he said. “She said ‘I want to thank you for your vote’ and then she said ‘I would like to introduce you to my wife’.”

Although the couple had already been married under the earlier Ontario legislation, it was not the bill itself that made the difference to the couple, but rather the message of acceptance of the larger society that the Civil Marriages Act sent that was so appreciated.

“There is a lot of legislation that you deal with as a Member of Parliament and most of it deals with regulating people’s lives and taxation,” he recalled, “but this made people happy. If I had to forget all but one thing in my 15 years, I would keep that experience. It is rare in political life that you can really make a positive change in people’s lives.”

Not all of the reaction to his stance on the issue was roses and accolades, however. Mr. St. Denis was met on the lawn of the Central Manitoulin municipal offices (where he was holding constituency office hours) by a vocal group of protestors from the religious right. Mr. St. Denis spoke with the protestors for a few moments before heading into his office. “There were people who had made appointments to see me in my office hours,” he recalled explaining to the group. “It would not have been fair to them to take up all of my time speaking to the protestors, but I did offer to meet with them later and I did hear them out.”

On a more personal level, Mr. St. Denis, who is a practicing Catholic, was refused communion at the altar by his parish priest.

“I am pretty sure I was the only MP in Canada who was caught at the altar,” chuckled Mr. St. Denis. The priest claimed later that he had intended to provide a heads up to the MP before the service, but that their paths had not crossed. “I know Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay NDP MP) was also going to be refused, but he was given a warning.”

Caught off-guard, Mr. St. Denis reacted to the refusal of the Eucharist in the most Christian manner he could muster. “I told him that I felt sorry for him and that I would pray for him,” he recalled somberly.

In the end, the opposition of the religious community was stymied by a threat to follow the French model for marriage, pulling the right to officiate the civil union from the clergy and making it a strictly civil contract. Members of the clergy today can still perform both the civil and the religious parts of a marriage ceremony in Canada, with the signing of the legal documents usually taking place to the side of the wedding ceremony.

As to how his talks about importance of tolerance and accommodation in the building of a modern civil society to Grade 10 students at MSS went during Pride Day, Mr. St. Denis quipped, “pretty good, at least nobody fell asleep.”

Mr. St. Denis, who today works for the Serpent River First Nation as an economic development officer and continues as the clerk of Cockburn Island, said that he was honoured by the MSS Pride Day presentation but reiterated that it was simply “the right thing to do.”