On July 16, following a marathon session, Manitoba’s NDP government passed its controversial Human Rights Code (Bill 47), into legislation. The Code, introduced in May by Attorney General Roland Penner, encountered very stiff opposition due primarily to the inclusion of “sexual orientation” among the prohibited grounds of discrimination.
The weeks following introduction and preceding passage of the Bill, were rife with controversy. Conservative critics expressed alarm over the scope of the legislation which would make “the substantive rights and obligations (contained in the Code) paramount over…every other Act of the Legislature. “The Code they argued, was not providing equality for gays and lesbians, it was giving them special status.
One Tory critic, writing in a Free Press article, insisted that it was insulting to existing minorities to refer to homosexuals as a minority group entitled to special protection. The government initially allotted two days for public hearings on the bill, but was required to extend the time by another full day because of the number of people wishing to make presentations.
There was widespread concern expressed by those appearing before the Committee about the Code’s definition of “sexual orientation”; a definition which equates homosexuality with bisexuality and heterosexuality. Homosexual activity, according to a majority of those presenting, was both unacceptable and immoral and could not be equated with heterosexuality. Promoting homosexuality on a par with normal sexual intercourse would be destructive of the family and society at large.
This view received unexpected reinforcement from a former governor-general and NDP premier The Hon. Edward Schreyer, presently Canada’s High Commissioner to Australia, and on holiday in Winnipeg, was drawn into the debate when he was asked by reporters to comment on the proposed legislation. Mr. Schreyer stated that homosexuality was “a affliction” and further that he had qualms about guaranteeing rights in law for a group wit “abnormal tendencies.”
The concern that “homosexuals can’t reproduce, so they recruit,” was expressed in many of the presentations. The inclusion of sexual orientation it was argued, could encourage homosexuals to openly advocate their way of life, particularly to the young. The Big Brothers Association of Manitoba was notable in its opposition to homosexuals as Big Brothers, stating that a majority of mothers did not want to have their sons paired with a homosexual.
The proposed legislation, it was stated, could also force schools “to teach homosexuality as legitimate, normative and alternative lifestyle.” This situation would be intolerable to religious and private schools, as well as many public schools and was an example of how the intrusive legislation could seriously infringe on the rights of others.
Many objected to the legislation on the grounds that homosexuals, like other members of society, are already protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the granting of special protection for a particular group inevitably abridges the rights and freedoms that others legitimately possess.
This point was amplified by Pastor Garth McGinn, of the Grant Memorial Baptist Church, who queried how the legislation would affect the rights of traditional religious groups unwilling to hire practicing homosexuals and opposed to marrying two people of the same sex.
Despite the imposition of party discipline, cracks appeared at times in the government’s efforts to pass the legislation. Two of their backbenchers, Jim Walding and Don Scott, voiced misgivings about the Bill, indicating an unwillingness to support it in its present form. Larry Desjardins, Minister of Health and a Roman Catholic, purported to be uneasy with the Bill, described homosexuality as “a sickness” although he stopped short of threatening to break party ranks.
Several other Catholic NDP MLAs expressed concern over the effects the Bill could have, but failed to translate their concerns into constructive opposition sadly, along with Mssrs. Walding and Scott, they were persuaded to abandon their concern by an essentially meaningless amendment to the effect that, inclusion of the term “sexual orientation” was not to be construed as government support or approval of homosexuality.
Few, if any, of the serious objections to the Bill, which were raised during the course of the debate and hearings, were ever satisfactorily addressed by the government or Mr. Penner. Although the Conservatives remained unanimous in their opposition to the Bill the view of the majority of Manitobans that the legislation was unnecessarily intrusive and dangerous, was virtually ignored.
The government, and lone Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, voted in favour, allowing passage of the Bill by a vote of 29 to 25. Come election time, Manitobans would do well to recall the cavalier attitude taken by the NDP government toward an issue of grave importance for the future well-being of individuals and society.