On June 10, Prince Edward Island lost its status as the only Canadian province without “sexual orientation” (gay privileges) in its human rights legislation. After months of hearings, intense media speculation, and many impassioned letters to the editor, the end came so quietly that it took a call to the clerk of the provincial legislature to confirm that an act had actually been passed.
Islanders opposed to the proposal urged MLAs to resist national trends as courageously as those who made P.E.I. an abortion-free zone, but from the beginning the outcome seemed pre-determined.
In December, before hearings even began, a committee chair stated on CBC radio that she favoured protection for homosexuals. In January, United Church minister Eric Fullerton produced a year-old letter from Tory Premier Pat Binns that seemed to promise protective legislation. A long-time major Tory fund raiser, Fullerton was later identified as a spokesman for the gay lobby group EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere). Though Binns denied that his letter was a promise, it seemed to influence developments.
Late-breaking, pro-gay judicial and government decisions across the country also influenced the outcome, as did The Charlottetown Guardian newspaper, which repeatedly exhibited a strong pro-gay stance. At one point, it referred to those opposed to the amendment as “fringe groups, who by and large seem to believe they can take it upon themselves to damn every last living homosexual in this province.”
Those “fringe groups” included the Knights of Columbus provincial council, P.E.I. Right to Life, REAL Women, and 54 Protestant pastors who presented a joint brief.
An ad hoc committee formed to rally Islanders for last minute pro-family lobbying tried to persuade legislators to insert traditional definitions of family (as individuals related by blood, marriage or adoption), marriage (the union of a man and a woman), and spouse (a person of the opposite sex). In the end, the government’s amendments prohibited discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” and “family status.” “Marital status,” however, was defined in opposite-sex terms.
During second reading, which was held unexpectedly during a night session on June 2, attorney general Mitch Murphy maintained that adding sexual orientation would satisfy the gay demand for a mechanism for lodging complaints, while the definition of marital status would protect traditional families. The government seemed to believe the combination would lessen the likelihood of court-imposed changes.
Though some members voted against the act, there was little debate. It has been reported that some MLAs were “judiciously absent.” Third reading followed on June 5, and royal assent on June 10. The act became effective immediately.
Reacting to the legislation, REAL Women commented, “The MLAs have received so much information from so many people, they can never say they didn’t know what they were doing.” A member of the Knights of Columbus said, “They will come to regret this. Unfortunately, so will the rest of us.”
A religious sister who had been active on the issue remarked, “They mean well but they don’t really understand the consequences of this action. We must continue to try to educate them, and to pray that the Spirit of truth will enlighten their minds and their hearts.”
Many Islanders expect gay activists will challenge the opposite-sex definition of marital status in court. Murphy gave no assurance that the province would actually fight such a challenge, or that it would use the “notwithstanding clause” of the constitution to override a ruling in favour of the gay lobby.