Canada has become the third country in the world to legalise gay marriage nationally after its parliament passed a bitterly contested same-sex unions bill on Tuesday evening.

The bill, passed by the lower house of parliament despite fierce opposition from conservatives, makes Canada the third country after the Netherlands and Belgium to allow gay marriage nationwide, The Associated Press reported.

Gay marriage is already legal in several Canadian provinces.

The same-sex marriage bill passed the lower house by a vote of 158 to 133. It must now pass the Canadian senate to become law.

The proposed gay marriage legislation split the ruling Liberal government, with one cabinet minister quitting his post because of the bill, BBC News reported.

It also incensed Canadian conservatives and religious groups, but gay activists said they would hail the bill’s passage.

I think this is going to be a proud and exciting day to be a Canadian because we are -¦ affirming to the world that we are a country that is open, inclusive and welcoming, the national coordinator of Canadians for Equal Marriage, Alex Munter, said prior to the vote.

Also before the vote, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, whose government drafted the same-sex marriage bill, told parliament: We are a nation of minorities. And in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don’t cherry-pick rights, reported.

Luke Gahan, national convenor of Australian Marriage Equality, said Canadian parliament had set a human rights precedent by passing the same-sex marriage law.

Today the Canadian Parliament has become a world leader in human rights by granting same-sex couples complete equality under federal law, it is such a shame that this leaves Australia once again at the bottom of the ladder, Gahan said.

He called on Australia’s federal parliament to follow the Canadian lead.

Same-sex couples in our nation contribute to Australian society just like any other couple, It is time the federal parliament gave us the equality and recognition that we deserve.

Canada’s gay marriage legislation is expected to pass the senate, possibly within days, according to Canadian Press.

But the country’s opposition Conservative Party says the debate is not over yet.

Its leader Stephen Harper said this week his party would repeal the legislation if victorious at the next federal election.

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