The debate was as ugly as it was long. Indeed, veteran members of the Ontario legislature described the fight to amend the province’s Human Rights Code as the most mean-spirited exchange that they had ever witnessed. The core of the controversy: an amendment barring discrimination against homosexuals. During five days of emotion-charged speeches, homosexuals were labelled as deviants, compared to alcoholics and blamed for declining birth rates. Declared New Democrat house leader Ross McClellan, whose party sponsored the amendment: “Quite frankly, this is the legislature at its very worst.”
Lobbying was intense on both sides of the issue, but opponents of the amendment were especially active. Religious groups and parent associations mailed 8,000 letters to Liberal Premier David Peterson, declaring that protecting homosexual rights would erode traditional family values. Despite the campaign, the legislature passed the amendment 64 to 45. Watching from the public galleries, jubilant members of Ontario’s homosexual community rose to their feet in a storm of applause.
The clause, expected to become law by year’s end, will make Ontario the second province (after Quebec in 1977) to legislate against denying access to employment, housing or service in public places on the basis of “sexual orientation.” Declared David Rayside, spokesman for the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario: “It’s a wonderful
symbolic victory for tolerance.” Homosexual activists were also celebrating in the Yukon, where the NDP government introduced a similar bill last week. The measure, expected to go into effect early in the coming new year, has already aroused emotional protests. Conservative MLA Alan Nordling said that the issue has thrown the Yukon “into the greatest turmoil it has ever seen.”
In Ontario a free vote in the legislature allowed members to vote without following party discipline. Only three of the 45 Conservative members sided with leader Larry Grossman and supported the amendment. All 21 NDP members present for the vote supported the bill, as did 39 of 43 Liberals.
During debate, each leader warned against allowing pressure from fundamentalist groups to determine the vote. Said Peterson: “I don’t think this province should be governed by polls or pressure groups.” But Rev. Hudson Hilsden, who spearheaded the fierce campaign to defeat the amendment and whose broadly based Coalition for Family Values included the National Citizens’ Coalition, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and REAL Women of Canada, declared, “The people of Ontario really haven’t been heard.” Replied the premier: “We must not confuse private morality with public policymaking.”
— SHERRI AIKENHEAD in Toronto with JAMES BUTLER in Whitehorse
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