Gay Wedding Bells. Why No Hubbub? It's Canada

New York Times

ORONTO, Sept. 23 — 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 a fissure across class, age, regions, gender and religious lines — a recipe for sharp discord in most societies, rich or poor.

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.

The other day religious groups, calling their campaign "Millions for Marriage," 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 by 137 to 132 a conservative resolution defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

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

"Debate in Canada is like talking into a pillow," noted Jane Jacobs, an urban affairs expert who left the United States 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, an acclaimed Barbadian-born immigrant 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."

Mr. 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 donuts, watching the CBC and an enduring collective desire to distinguish Canadian culture from American. If Americans are loud, Canadians will be whispery.

As the American political debate has become noisier and more polarized in recent years, Canada has settled into a comfortable, left-leaning middle ground. It's partly, though not entirely, a reaction. Canadians generally like the fact that the culture wars don't move their nation. 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," noted 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 about here. Homelessness and urban decay are growing, as are waiting lists for health care services. 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 to be held early next year, debates on these issues have yet to jell. Recent provincial elections have turned on such mundane concerns as auto insurance rates.

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

Some social scientists believe Canada is merely going through a serene pause, pointing to loud debates in the 1970's, 80's and 90's over Quebec sovereignty and free trade with the United States. But most historians say the current calm is more the rule and the preceding sometimes noisy period the exception. They note that while America's founding documents are based on the principle of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Canada's Constitution celebrates "peace, order and good government."

While the modern nations of the New World were mostly born out of revolution, Canada was born out of a fear of revolution. Modern Canada is built on a series of deals negotiated by lawyers in the 19th and 20th centuries to build a consensus among disparate provinces to join in a confederation loosely governed by a weak central government.

The root of Canada's consensual ways, historians note, is the long uneasy relationship between French-speaking and Catholic Quebec and the rest of the Canada, which is predominantly English-speaking and Protestant.

When Britain conquered New France in the mid-18th century, the colonial authorities decided against an oppressive occupation mostly because the French-speaking population was so large. Instead they chose co-optation, giving the Roman Catholic Church wide latitude over social affairs and condoning the continued flourishing of a French society.

Thus was Canada's uneasy biculturalism born, and with it the foundations for multicultural policies that have encouraged millions of new immigrants to stream into Canadian cities over the last 30 years and coexist with little tension. Immigrants are encouraged to retain their cultures, just like the Québécois, and assimilation is glacial.

The peaceful result is just fine with most Canadians.

"I like it quiet; noisy, contentious, loud, in-your-face destroys our country and well-being," said Robert Fulford, a columnist for The National Post. "To make any national decision you must have a majority in Quebec and a majority outside Quebec. To accomplish that you walk on eggs."