- Sasha Issenberg
July 20, 2005: Canada legalizes same-sex marriage
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
ON THIS DAY IN 2005...
With the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act, Canada became the world's fourth country to legalize same-sex marriage throughout its borders.
Ontario was the first place in North America to extend civil-marriage rights to same-sex couples, in June 2003, following a ruling by the province’s superior court that the existing definition of common-law marriage violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Shortly after, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said the federal definition of marriage should change to include all couples. "I have learned over 40 years in public life that society evolves and that the concept of human rights evolves more quickly than some of us might have predicted - and sometimes even in ways to make some people feel uncomfortable," he said that August after British Columbia’s provincial courts followed Ontario’s and shortly before Québec’s would do the same.
Americans in the midst of their own marriage debate were paying close attention. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003 that same-sex couples be permitted to marry there, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s majority opinion cited the Halpern v. Toronto (City) decision just months earlier. Promoters of a Federal Marriage Amendment, in large part as a hedge against such an outcome in Massachusetts, began invoking events in Ontario and British Columbia as reason for particular urgency writing a ban on same-sex marriage into the U.S. Constitution. “Some argue that because Canada is about to recognize gay marriages, we will be required to recognize them by virtue of our treaties with Canada,” conservative activist Paul Weyrich, an éminence grise of the pro-amendment Arlington Group, wrote in a column that fall.
The Civil Marriage Act came before Parliament in early 2005, with the support of the Liberal government led Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin. By then, most of Canada’s provinces and territories, covering a vast majority of the country’s residents, had changed their civil marriage laws. It passed by a large margin on July 19, 2005, and became law the next day. The next year, Conservative leader Stephen Harper campaigned the next year to revisit the marriage issue, but after defeating Martin his minority government could not muster the votes to do so. “I don't see reopening this question in the future,” Harper said that December.