July 1 is Canada’s national day, and although the country has its share of political problems, we have a great deal to celebrate.
We are not at war in Iraq, killing and maiming for no reason. We have conservatives in our politics, but we have no commentators spewing hate like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. We have no puffed-up imperialist ones like Thomas Friedman. We have no genuinely dangerous public figures like Tom Delay or Donald Rumsfeld.
Our Supreme Court has decided a murderous beast, Rwandan exile Leon Mugesera, will be deported to face justice, while a mass murderer who blew up an airliner full of people and unquestionably engaged in many other acts of violence, Luis Posada Carriles, is protected by the President of the United States from receiving justice in Venezuela.
I’d rather have a Prime Minister who sometimes dithers – although, as a pure politician, Mr. Martin has demonstrated breath-taking skill in outmaneuvering his opponents – than a President who seems capable of nothing but lying and crying about terror while terrorizing others.
Only a few days before the national holiday, with the passing of Bill C-38, Canada became just the third country in the world, after Holland and Belgium, to expand human rights by giving gays the same right to marry as others. Any person aware of history and the gradual expansion of human rights over the last few centuries understands that this is something that will come eventually to all advanced countries (Spain became the fourth the next day), but it is nice to be in the forefront of progress and decency.
Contrary to the harsh uninformed preaching of fundamentalists mainly in the United States, the fully-formed modern idea of marriage only appears in the twentieth century, a time when people choose their companions, often for love and a time when we treat children as being rather precious and needing expensive education. Many marriages are of course childless, but they are still regarded as marriages in every meaning of the word. Control of human fertility for the first time in human history gives us an idea of children new in some respects. Many do not want them. Most have a small number of them and invest a very great deal in them.
The meaning of marriage has changed many times, just since the Middle Ages. Peasants typically during the Middle Ages co-habited. The Catholic Church made marriage a sacrament to enlarge its income and control. Marriage was mainly then an institution for the rich, and it had very little to do with love or companionship. Marriages of the rich and powerful were arranged, always with a careful eye to wealth and property. At the top of the social pyramid, unmarried princesses became literally pawns of their fathers in international affairs.
Elizabeth I, the greatest prince in European history, used Europe’s then-traditional views on marriage to advance the affairs of England, avoiding destructive wars by toying with various princes, sometimes for years, over the possibility or even the terms of marriage, something to which she privately was determined never to subject herself, having the harrowing experience of her father’s treatment of six wives, including her own mother, burnt into memory.
While details changed, by the eighteenth century, this view of marriage was still alive, even in the New World. George Washington married the richest widow in the British colonies, Martha Custis, and made himself a rich man. I say “made himself” because by the laws and customs then still prevailing, all Martha’s property became George’s. George liked Martha but no one who knew them ever regarded theirs as a marriage of love. Property and male control of property remained so inextricably linked to marriage, it wasn’t until well into the twentieth century in North America that women could hold bank accounts or take loans and mortgages without a husband to co-sign for them.
Children were not treated in the sentimental way we treat them. In upper-class families, children were typically raised by servants and educated by hired scholars in demanding curricula. By the eighteenth century, they were typically sent to boarding schools at a young age. In lower-class families, children were worked like beasts. Through the Industrial Revolution, people very unsentimentally sent children at an early age to work under brutal conditions – as when they were literally chained to machines – or to apprentice in some trade. Charles Dickens’ hated apprenticeship to a bootblack was almost gentle compared with what many children in early Victorian England experienced.
So, too, on American farms of the nineteenth century, regarded by so many with sentimental, unrealistic visions of Little House on the Prairie. Children were assets in small under-capitalized enterprises. They did tough work like haying, picking, and water-hauling. Many of the marriages involved little of what we regard today as love or affection, although that was always possible. The women were sometimes mail-order or often not well known to their spouses-to-be. They did unremitting work, aging and dying often quite young. High infant mortality, too, limited the development of purely sentimental bonds with children because nearly half of them died before growing up.
There is simply no reason, other than blind prejudice, for gay people to be denied the rights, satisfactions, and responsibilities of modern marriage. Many may never consider marriage. That too is their right. What is wonderful is that Canada’s legal acceptance of their equal status in marriage will gradually work to wear away any remnant of regarding gays as something corrupt or immoral. That is always how it is with social change: change occurs in notable events, almost little revolutions if you will, and gradually all of society alters its attitudes. A number of men, including preachers and newspaper editors, swore up and down, saying many ridiculous and embarrassing things, when women were given the right to vote in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s not easy giving up privileges and prejudices.
Not that gays have a difficult time in Canada, the country being far more tolerant than many. Toronto’s Gay Pride parade has become a huge event, an entertainment which families attend, with a bigger turnout than the Santa Claus parade. Most people understand that homosexuality is as birth-determined as hair color. The favorite line of preachers of hate that gays are choosing a lifestyle, an abominable lifestyle in the eyes of God, is patent nonsense. However Canada’s new law allows churches who believe this stuff to be exempted from performing gay marriages.
Happy Birthday, Canada.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives on the shores of Lake Ontario.