Mounties Set for Force's First Same-Sex Wedding

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

TORONTO -- It promises to be a grand June wedding, two scarlet-coated officers of the famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police standing before a justice of the peace with an escort of similarly spiffy Mounties observing the nuptials on the eve of Canada Day, a national holiday.

When the two constables become the first male Mounties to marry each other, the grumpiest witness-from-afar might well be Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The planned union of Jason Tree and David Connors in Nova Scotia on June 30 has cast a spotlight on Harper's pledge to his conservative backers to try to roll back same-sex marriage laws.

Harper has not spoken publicly about the upcoming wedding and has ordered his party members to shut up about the matter, an attempt to silence lawmakers that has served to draw more attention to the issue while sparking complaints about the prime minister's heavy-handedness.

"I think it's great if we change the public perception," said Tree, 27, who patrols a stretch of rural fishing communities along the Bay of Fundy. "If the public sees the RCMP as representing the diversity of the community, that is good."

About 25 miles away, Connors, 28, helps to police Yarmouth, a town of 8,000. The two men met in college eight years ago and have been partners since.

Tree said he had been open about their relationship since he joined the force six years ago, and "from the outset, I have never had a single problem." The force has assigned the two men close together, as it does with other couples, and fellow officers "have all been great," Tree said from their home in Meteghan, southwest of Halifax.

"There does exist that social stereotype of a kind of straight, masculine image of police," he added. "We say you can be in the force and be gay."

Tree and Connors decided to join thousands of other same-sex couples getting married in Canada. In 2003, Ontario's highest court ruled that same-sex couples could not be denied marriage. Courts in other provinces followed. Last July, Canada's Parliament bowed to the judicial momentum and narrowly approved same-sex marriages throughout the country.

But the Liberal-led government was replaced in February by Harper's Conservative Party, which includes staunch opponents of gay marriage. The party platform included a pledge to ask Parliament to reopen the issue. But Harper has been in no hurry; he said Friday he would introduce the resolution sometime in the fall.

"I think he realizes it is not a popular debate for him, not one that would win him votes," said Kaj Hasselriis of Canadians for Equal Marriage, an Ottawa-based gay rights organization. "The majority of Canadians think this issue is settled and don't want to reopen it."

But the marriage of Tree and Connors has clashed head-on with the foremost icon of Canada's national image of virile, outdoorsy strength -- the square-jawed Mountie of popular lore.

"This busts some stereotypes," Hasselriis said. "We talk about the Mounties getting their man, but I don't think a lot of people thought about getting their man this way."

The image of the 22,561-member RCMP has already evolved. Women joined in 1974; they now make up 17 percent of the police officers. In 1990, Sikh Mounties were permitted to trade the flat-brimmed Mountie hat for their traditional turban. But Tree and Connors's uniformed matrimony goes too far for some.

"This does nothing to strengthen the family," said Dave Bylsma, president of the Ontario Council of the Christian Heritage Party. "Personally, it doesn't matter to me if they are RCMP or dogcatchers or garbagemen. But they are obviously using the fact that they are Mounties to rub our nose in it."

When Harper last month ordered his Conservative caucus members not to speak about the matter, he further soured relations with Canadian reporters over what they call his unprecedented attempts to control the news. The public safety minister, Stockwell Day, ostensibly the government's only authorized spokesman on the matter, has declined comment.

"If they speak about gay rights, same-sex marriage, abortion, the risk is the Conservative Party will be portrayed as extremist," said David Rayside, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and director of the Center for Sexual Diversity Studies. "In the United States, they would not pass as extremists. But in Canada, they would. There is a gap between Canadian and American attitudes."

The U.S. military, for example, does not officially permit gay relationships. In Canada, two servicemen were married on an air force base last June, and the RCMP says it has no objection to the upcoming ceremony.

"There's a law in this country, and this ought to be considered a regular event," said Sgt. Frank Skidmore, a spokesman for the Nova Scotia RCMP detachments.

"Just look at the last 10 years to see how far we have come in Canada," said Tree. "I'm hoping some day soon that this will die down."

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