Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Oppressed by political correctness

The question of same-sex marriages stirs a typically civil debate in Canada

By Cliford Krauss  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TORONTO

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Gay marriage is the most contentious issue to emerge on the Canadian political scene since Quebec threatened to secede in 1995. Opinion polls show the issue cuts across class, age, regional, gender and religious lines -- a recipe for sharp discord in most societies.

But this is Canada, a country that has never suffered a revolution or civil war, where compromise, consensus and civility are the most cherished political values.

Religious groups calling their campaign "Millions for Marriage" recently tried to mobilize demonstrations outside the offices of 30 members of parliament across the nation to sway them against extending marriage rights to gays. The demonstration fizzled, with reporters outnumbering protesters in several places.

That failure did not mean that gay marriage is not deeply divisive; the House of Commons was evenly split in a test vote on the issue last week, rejecting 137 to 132 a conservative resolution defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman.

But it showed that taking a position on an emotional, divisive issue is, well, un-Canadian.

"Debate in Canada is like talking into a pillow," said Jane Jacobs, an urban affairs expert who left the US during the Vietnam War and became a Canadian. "There's a great civility, but you often don't know how people are thinking."

Austin Clarke, a Barbadian-born novelist, had a less approving interpretation: "We are oppressed by political correctness," he said. "That makes us more conservative and scared to express our deeply felt convictions than people in countries that we regard as conservative."

Clarke was referring, of course, to Canada's argumentative neighbor to the south, the country Canadians love to differentiate themselves from. Canada is a big, multicultural country that is united by very few things: a shared love for ice hockey and Tim Hortons doughnuts, watching the CBC and an enduring desire to distinguish Canadian culture from American. If Americans are loud, Canadians will be whispery.

As the American political debate has become more polarized in recent years, Canada has settled into a comfortable, left-leaning middle ground. The Christian right is small here, and few politicians will openly address hot-button issues like abortion.

Come north over the border, and you may want to turn up the volume on Canada's comparatively tepid radio talk shows. The two leading political magazines of the left and right have gone bankrupt in the last couple of years, because of decreasing reader interest and declining advertising.

"There is a deep-seated bias against anybody who stirs up feelings of anxiety about the status quo or the way the world is," said Link Byfield, the editor and publisher of The Report, the conservative magazine that went silent in June after 30 years in print.

It is not that there is nothing to debate here. Homelessness and urban decay are growing, as are waiting lists for health care. Federal and local governments are liberalizing drug laws, decriminalizing marijuana and allowing safe-injection centers to open in Vancouver. But even with national elections expected early next year, debates on these issues have yet to jell. Recent provincial elections have turned on mundane concerns like auto insurance rates.

Even Quebec has quieted down, with the federalist Liberals easily defeating the separatist Parti Quebecois in a provincial election last spring.

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