Pubdate: Sun, 23 Nov 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: Week in Review
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Clifford Krauss
Cited: Renee Boje


Gay Couples Follow a Trail North Blazed by Slaves and War Resisters

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Heaven was the word for Canada and the
Negro sang of the hope that his escape on the Underground Railroad
would carry him there," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted
in describing the codes American slaves used in their spirituals to
fool their masters before taking flight.

Canada is heaven again for Lance W. Bateman and William E. Woods, two
American men who were married here recently.

The wedding on Aug. 31 looked like a typical Hawaiian wedding, with
the grooms wearing tropical ceremonial shirts made of pineapple fiber
woven to look like fine silk and every guest wearing at least one
orchid lei. Except the affair was in Canada, because the two men could
not legally be married in Hawaii, where they live and to which they
have returned.

As untraditional as the affair might seem, the men were actually
following a long tradition of Americans coming here to break the
conventions of the day, do something illegal, or simply live as they
wished. The tradition goes back to the American Revolution, when
30,000 Loyalists flooded into Ontario and Nova Scotia to remain in the
paternal embrace of King George III.

Mr. Woods, a 54-year-old public health administrator, and other
gay-rights advocates are campaigning to encourage American gay couples
to marry in Canada and then take their Canadian marriage licenses back
home to press for the kind of pension, medical and other benefits that
heterosexual married couples have.

"It is clear that when Americans are denied justice we can just cross
the border, where the culture and language are relatively equivalent
and achieve the sense of freedom we cannot achieve at home," Mr. Woods
said. He noted that even now that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court has ruled in favor of gay marriage -- just as Hawaii's Supreme
Court did in the early 1990's, before the state's constitution was
amended to exclude homosexual marriages -- the fight in the United
States is not over and that those who are not willing to wait to marry
will keep coming north.

"There is an escape now, and that escape is Canada," he said. "As in
the time of slavery, we can learn from the experience in Canada that
the world does not collapse on us when we achieve justice."

That Mr. Woods would draw a connection between his experience in
Canada and the 30,000 blacks who escaped here before the American
Civil War is not at all far-fetched, Canadian and American historians

"Canada from time to time functions as the great outpatient clinic for
disaffected Americans," noted Gil Troy, an American historian who
teaches at McGill University in Montreal.

Like the gay couples of 2003, many of the fugitive slaves of 150 years
ago did not stay long. They went home to fight in the Union army. In
the 1870's, Sitting Bull and his Sioux nation escaped the American
cavalry and made Saskatchewan home for a few years before returning
south with Canadian encouragement.

Neither group found Canada particularly friendly, but their presence
helped solidify among Canadians a lasting notion of moral superiority
in the way they treat minorities.

"We have always prided ourselves as being the northern terminus of the
Underground Railroad, so we never stop enjoying embarrassing America
as inferior in race relations," said Austin Clarke, an acclaimed
Canadian novelist who was born in Barbados.

The exoduses have also had a surprisingly strong impact on the
Canadian psyche.

"Canadians need to know they are different from Americans," said
Christopher Moore, a historian who has studied the American Loyalists
who came north in the Revolutionary War. "Any time we take a stand and
actually attract Americans to come here it reassures us that we have
something unique."

That was particularly the case when more than 120,000 Vietnam War
draft resisters came north in the 1960's and 1970's. At the time,
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said their presence proved that Canada
was "a refuge from militarism" in a speech that did not please Washington.

"The decision of Canada to allow American Vietnam War resisters to
take refuge here was an opportunity for Canada to stake out its new
autonomy," said John Hagan, a draft resister in 1969 who now is a dual
citizen and teaches sociology and law at Northwestern University and
the University of Toronto.

The sense of autonomy developed more fully when Canada adopted
independent policies toward Cuba, and more recently when it supported
the International Criminal Court (which the United States opposes) and
declined to send troops to Iraq. Canadian divergence was carved more
sharply over the last year by the willingness of Prime Minister Jean
Chretien to push ahead with plans to extend marriage rights and
decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Last spring, two provincial courts made Canada the third country to
legalize same-sex marriage, and now 1,500 or so gay and lesbian
couples have exchanged vows. Of those, more than one-third are American.

That trend is not likely to change much until it is clear whether
Massachusetts will accept its court's new ruling or try to amend its
constitution. But even if the decision stands, gay activists will have
to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act to assure that a
Massachusetts marriage is recognized in all states.

Once Canada's House of Commons makes same-sex marriage legal across
Canada, as it is expected to do next year, the Canadian marriage
license could be an effective weapon. American gay advocates say they
could argue in court that a Canadian license should be recognized in
the United States as one of many contracts whose reciprocal acceptance
is required by treaty.

Several hundred other Americans have crossed the border in recent
years as the Bush administration has cracked down on medical marijuana
growers and "compassion clubs" that distribute pot to the sick as a
painkiller. "For me Canada is a way of life and a chance for freedom
away from the nightmare that awaits me in the United States," said
Renee Boje, who fled to Canada in 1998 from charges of cultivating
marijuana -- a crop she said a colleague had planted for medicinal
purposes. She and a few other marijuana fugitives are seeking refugee
status in Canada, and if they succeed, they could be joined by many

Or, with the war in Iraq dragging on, Canadians half-jokingly say
American deserters might be the next wave.

"Canadians think about the Iraq war the way they did about Vietnam,"
said Neil Bissoondath, a Trinidadian-born Canadian novelist and social
critic. "And accepting a new generation of dodgers would fit right in
with our sense of ourselves." 
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