Growing public and political opposition to the government’s plan to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples may delay such changes until as late as 2005. But there is pressure to pass such legislation much sooner, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who has failed to secure a lasting legacy, seems determined to create a massive social change like that of Pierre Trudeau’s binding of Canada to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As Chretien’s tenure comes to a close, there is a certain urgency surrounding the government’s strategy. While there is some uncertainty about what the government can and can’t get away with, such uncertainty can only work in their favour. They may spring a sudden vote upon the House of Commons when pro-family MPs – and the public – least expect it, rendering them unable to mount a strong opposition to the redefinition of marriage. Some might even see Justice Minister Martin Cauchon’s musing that the vote may not be possible until 2005 as an attempt to cool the grassroots activism which has emerged across this country against the redefinition. It is a spontaneous and wide backlash against the social engineering of the Ontario Court of Appeals’ decision in June, and it does not seem to be slowing.

This grassroots activism comes in many forms: townhall meetings, public rallies and letter-writing campaigns to both newspapers and elected officials. An aide to an Ontario MPP told The Interim that his boss received more than 2000 letters, phone calls, faxes and emails on the issue of same-sex “marriage” in the two weeks after the court decision. Other provincial representatives have indicated similar outpourings of opposition to the redefinition of marriage, despite the fact that marriage is a federal jurisdiction.

But provincial representatives are not the only ones hearing from their constituents. This vocal public opposition has MPs, especially Liberal MPs from rural or heavily ethnic (Italian Catholic, Sikh or Muslim) urban ridings worried.

John McKay (Lib, Scarborough East), who opposes same-sex marriage, said that “In the six years I’ve been in Parliament, no issue, not even remotely, has generated the calls and emails that this one has.”

As Focus on the Family has noted, this outpouring of support for the traditional definition of marriage “appears to be having an effect on some who would personally support gay marriage.” It noted Carmen Provenzano (Lib, Sault Ste Marie) as an example of an MP who says he is “obligated” to vote according to “the wishes of my constituency.” Provenzano has said, “I have people expressing their opinions to me in quite forceful ways … They’re telling me they’re never going to vote for me again because of what my government is doing.”

The Globe and Mail reported that this issue may “emerge as an uncomfortably hot issue in the next election that could shrink Paul Martin’s juggernaut.”

Andy Savoy, a New Brunswick MP and president of the Liberal Party’s rural caucus, said the issue could decide the election, noting that rural MPs have “a lot of concern” with this redefining of a 2000-year-old institution. A Liberal party constituency association executive from southwestern Ontario told The Interim : “I hope that this issue is dealt with long before or ideally after the next (federal) election.” While cherry-picking their favourite (and out-dated) poll, the Globe article said that the majority support for same-sex “marriage” should not cost the Liberal Party their majority. But even assuming that such polls are correct, the Liberal Party is joined by the Bloc Quebecois and NDP in its support for redefining marriage; the Progressive Conservatives are a mixed bunch, with four Tory MPs in support of same-sex “marriage” and the Canadian Alliance opposed to the redefinition. (Whether the party would court social conservatives with a strong commitment to family and marriage is yet to be seen.

The Toronto Star has reported that even a number of cabinet ministers “are having second thoughts over a possible public backlash in the next election.” The Globe and Mail reported that eight cabinet ministers are undecided or won’t say how they will vote.

Some MPs are looking for an out, an alternative to calling the legal recognition of same-sex relationships “marriage.” Even MPs who sound socially conservative and support religious teaching on marriage seem ready to capitulate to the recognition of same-sex “civil unions.” (Scarborough East’s McKay, for instance.) This compromise may seem politically shrewd but is morally incoherent and unacceptable. (In short: This illicit compromise recognizes a relationship based on immoral acts. Once the legal principle is established that such relationships deserve acceptance, it may well be impossible to prevent the eventual redefinition of marriage to include homosexual couples. It is also naive to think that homosexual activists will be content with this compromise and demand that since homosexual relationships have been formally approved of, it is unjust discrimination to deny them the right to “marry.”)

Vancouver South MP Hedy Fry, the former secretary of state for multiculturalism and currently the B.C. Liberal caucus chairwoman, said that Liberal MPs arguing in favour of same-sex civil unions, as opposed to marriage, are like southern U.S. segregationists. “It’s like suggesting you have water fountains or washrooms,” she said. “They’re equally equipped, et cetera – but one is for blacks and one is for whites …. You’re still segregating.” In a way, Fry is right. The civil unions/marriage dichotomy is little more than semantics. They are, figuratively speaking, separate water fountains.

But talk of even this flawed alternative is a testament to the grassroots uprising against the government’s plans to redefine marriage and a sign that there is significant resistance to wholesale change.

It is unclear whether the government has the votes to redefine marriage. Although Cauchon says that it could take until 2005 for the government to introduce, debate and vote on legislation after the Supreme Court answers Cauchon’s three questions regarding the change of definition and the (dubious) provision that protects the rights of churches not to bless same-sex “marriages.”

In early August, the Toronto Star reported that of 79 Ontario Liberal MPs surveyed, only 15 definitely planned to vote for the government’s legislation granting homosexual couples the right to marry. Several sources have put the number of Liberal MPs opposed to the government’s proposed legislation between 40 and 50 with another 25-40 undecided or refusing to comment. However, Liberal Party political strategists The Interim talked to say that many undecideds and even several who are opposed to the redefinition could eventually back the government’s legislation, especially if it is not voted on until after the next federal election.

Even if many do not change their minds, the vast majority of the Bloc Quebecois and NDP support redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, as do four Progressive Conservative MPs, including former party leader Joe Clark. Liberal MP Paul Szabo (Mississauga South) has said that approximately half – 80 – of his 171 Liberal colleagues would have to vote against it, along with the Canadian Alliance and the majority of Tory MPs, to defeat the bill.

Knowing that the government has a tough job ahead of them in trying to convince not just a handful of judges but the Canadian public and the majority of its own caucus that marriage should be changed to include homosexual couples, the government is going on the offensive. Chretien has said there will be a free vote but that there must be solidarity among the ministers. Chretien and Cauchon have ruled out a referendum (which polls indicate would maintain the current definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman to me exclusion of all others) and any so-called compromise on same-sex civil unions. Paul Martin, the presumptive next prime minister, has come out in favour of redefining marriage, lessening the pressure on the prime minister. Cauchon is hoping to counter burgeoning opposition – polls have indicated that since the Ontario court decision, support for same-sex “marriage” has declined – by embarking on a series of speeches across the country promoting the government’s redefinition of marriage. He kicked off the campaign in August with a speech to the Canadian Bar Association.