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Redefining family: some say marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, but others say marriage can be between couples of the same sex and is the logical next step in the battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians.

In June 2003, the federal government chose not to oppose same-sex "marriages." This makes Canada one of a tiny handful of countries--a minority in fact--to permit such unions. The decision appears to have the support of a slim majority of Canadians, according to public opinion polls. There is, however, a lot of vocal opposition to the move. Much of the hostility comes from various Christian denominations, although some Muslims, Jews, and people of no religious conviction also disagree with Ottawa's position.

But, many view such opposition as discrimination, pure and simple. The real issues they say are democracy, principles of fairness, justice, equality, and the rights of Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As in the fight for women's rights, gays and lesbians started their quest for equality by seeking basic individual rights. Then they moved on to issues involving gay and lesbian couples, such as health and pension benefits. Federal and provincial courts are gradually giving the same rights to gay common-law couples as heterosexual partners, but most of the changes have been fairly recent.

In April 1998, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the federal government could not forbid private pension plans to pay the same survival pensions to members' same-sex partners as they would to widows and widowers. The decision was another step toward legal recognition for homosexual couples. It was a declaration that to limit the definition of "spouse" to heterosexual couples is unconstitutional, and that partners of the same sex who live together should also be included.

A year later, in May 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that gay couples are also entitled to support payments when it ruled that Ontario's Family Law Act definition of spouse was unconstitutional. The same month, Alberta allowed gay men and women to adopt their stepchildren.

Because of the Supreme Court ruling, provincial governments across the country will eventually rewrite laws regarding support payments or alimony. As well, other statutes related to adoption, inheritance, insurance, and pension benefits, will have to be changed to remove provisions that discriminate against gay couples. If they don't, the laws could be successfully challenged in court.

At the same time, the Supreme Court was setting the stage for broader gay rights, Quebec introduced legislation to overhaul 28 provincial laws and 11 regulations so all common-law couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual, had the same rights. Under Bill 32, the province set out to review every law that touches on common-law relationships to make sure they all include gay couples. Its actions made it the first province in Canada and the second jurisdiction in North America to extend wide-ranging benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

It wasn't long before a majority of Canadians thought gay couples should be able to legally get married. A 1999 survey found that 53 percent of Canadians favoured the move, while 44 percent were opposed and three percent were undecided. Support was highest in Quebec, where 61 percent agreed that unions between same-sex couples should be recognized legally. In the Prairie Provinces, numbers favouring the idea were 42 percent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and 43 percent in Alberta. In B.C., 54 percent were in favour, while 53 percent were in Ontario, and 48 percent in Atlantic Canada. Also, younger Canadians, and those with higher formal education were more accepting of gay marriage. (A 2003 poll

also found that 53% of Canadians support the idea.)

In June 2001, Nova Scotia became the first province to register common-law and same-sex relationships and issue certificates formally recognizing homosexual couples as domestic partners. The registration was not a marriage; however, it did give same-sex couples many of the same rights as married couples, including spousal benefits and pensions, and equal division of property and spousal support if the relationship dissolved. A year later, Quebec, under Bill 84, gave full parental rights to homosexual couples in the province. Also, they were granted the same status and obligations as heterosexual married couples when they enter into what is called a civil union.

In May 2003, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry, and that to deny them that tight is a violation of anti-discrimination measures in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And, a month later, the Ontario Court of Appeal also ruled that same-sex couples should be able to tie the knot. In fact, nine of the ten provinces (Alberta is the exception) say they will accept and recognize same-sex unions when the federal government follows through on its plan to pass a law giving them legal standing. But, the feds appeared to be of two minds on this issue. In July 2002, Ottawa appealed an Ontario court ruling that would have forced it to include same-sex couples in the definition of marriage; a year later, it introduced new legislation that includes same-sex couples in the definition of marriage. At that point, Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Ottawa would not appeal recent court rulings in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec in favour of same-sex marriages. "There is an evolution in society," Mr. Chretien said. "According to the interpretation of the court, they concluded these unions should be legal in Canada."

Ottawa's proposed legislation defines marriage as "the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others," replacing the notion of a union between a man and a woman. After proposing the legislation in July 2003, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said, "It's not a definition that takes anything away from heterosexual marriages. It's a generous and open definition ... which adds a lot to Canadian society ... (it's a) question of dignity."


1. Many MPs said they were against the federal government's 2000 bill granting spousal benefits to gay couples because the same benefits were not extended to others living in dependent relationships, such as siblings. Discuss how you think the government should deal with such relationships and who should be included.

2. As a politician, Tory MP Scott Brison, who is gay, does not believe in defining people by their sexual orientation. "I view sexual orientation a lot like eye colour," he says. "I have no insecurities about it, but I don't view it as a completely defining feature about who I am or what I represent ... I think in a country with the military in shambles, the health-care system in crisis, a government out of touch with the real needs of Canadians, and a country searching for vision and searching for ideas to build a better country, the sexual orientation of a politician ... should be the last thing on people's minds." Discuss Mr. Brison's comments.

3. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops told a justice committee hearing on whether Canada's marriage laws should be changed that the institution of marriage shouldn't be tinkered with: they described it as deeply entwined in the anthropological, personal, social and religious dimensions of our culture. Analyze this view and contrast it with the United Church of Canada's conviction that nothing short of fully recognized same-sex marriages is acceptable, and that the justice committee's consideration of creating a parallel registry, for same-sex couples would not promote equality.

4. In June 2003, a group of Canadians, including professors, lawyers, and religious leaders, issued a statement saying they "recognize that there is a need to provide new legal frameworks for various forms of adult interdependent relationships. However, we maintain that marriage as the common law has long recognized it as 'the voluntary and lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others' is something distinct from other forms of human relationships. This time-honoured institution cannot justly be impugned as discriminatory." Discuss.


Vancouver-area Anglican churches were divided over a decision to allow individual parishes to bless same-sex unions. The controversy started in 2002 when a majority voted in favour of creating a ceremony to bless unions between committed same-sex couples. Within a year, eight of the 80 churches in the area denounced the move, saying it goes against church teachings, and mediated talks between the two sides broke down.

In May 2003, national leaders of the world's Anglican churches signed a letter asking that blessings not occur because of their potential to divide the church. As one observer points out, issues of sexuality often have been controversial when mixed with theology. The ordination of women, birth control, and remarriage after divorce all have been challenges in the past.

While the issue is expected to put a strain on churches around the world, many religious leaders see the blessing of same-sex unions as a move in the right direction. According to New Westminster diocese Bishop Michael Ingham, who authorized six parishes to perform the rite in May 2003, "Homosexual people ought not to be the object of religious discrimination and prejudice, which they are, of course, in many places." But, he added, "We're not compelling anyone to do anything that's against their conscience," just allowing those parishes that want to offer their blessings to do so.


"As Prime Minister of Canada, (Jean Chretien) has the moral responsibility to protect the equality of Canadians. There needs to be a separation between the church and state." Thoren Hudyma, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Officer, in response to a Roman Catholic bishop's condemnation of Mr. Chretien if he makes same-sex marriage legal in Canada, July 2003

"In the Netherlands, we have gained the insight that an institution as important as marriage should be open to everyone." Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, when he officiated at the country's first gay marriages in 2001

"Once you extend to same-sex couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, what reason is there to withhold the status of marriage itself, other than discrimination? " John Fisher, executive director of EGALE, a national organization that advocates for gays and lesbians, July 2001

"Even if the (Supreme) Court were inclined to stop same-sex marriage, the polling numbers and social attitudes of Canadians indicate that it will become a reality at some point over the next decade, one way or another." Miriam Smith, professor of political science at Carleton University and author of Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada; Social Movements and Equality Seeking, 1971-1995


The legal definition of marriage falls under Ottawa's jurisdiction while it is up to the provinces to issue marriage licences.


Federal hate-crime sentencing regulations, adopted in 1994, require a judge, upon sentencing, to impose a more severe sentence if the crime is motivated by the victim's race, religion, or nationality: sexual orientation, age, and language were added in 1996. However, in 1998, a Vancouver police officer estimated that about 80 percent of violence against gays goes unreported.

Two years later, Ontario's Human Rights Commission released a new guideline. This declared that a single incident of harassment of a gay or lesbian employee because of their sexual orientation could constitute a "poisoned environment" and violate the province's Human Rights Code. The Code was among the pieces of legislation updated by Bill 5, which was passed in October 1999. This changed 67 provincial laws to end discrimination against same-sex couples, as ordered by the Supreme Court five months earlier.

The new guideline covers employers, landlords, and those providing services, including governments, schools, shops, restaurants, hospitals, and insurance companies. It includes "demeaning remarks, jokes, or innuendo ... about the person's sexual orientation or same-sex partnership status," as violations of the Human Rights Code.

It was only three decades ago that homosexuality was a criminal offence in Canada. And, according to the human rights watchdog Amnesty International, sexual identity leads to persecution in dozens of countries worldwide. Canada is one of the few countries that recognizes hatred and violence against homosexuals as grounds for seeking refugee status. However, gays here also are victims of shocking violence because of their sexuality, and many think police officers need to be better trained and educated on the issue.


In April 2001, four gay couples were the first to be married I Amsterdam under a new Dutch law allowing same-sex marriages: the Dutch legislation, which was approved in 2000, eliminates all references to gender in laws governing marriage and adoption.


Canada Family Action Coalition--http://www.

EGALE--http://www.egale. ca/index.asp

Foundation for Equal Families--
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Title Annotation:Minorities--Gays
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Previous Article:Us and them: human beings share a vast array of things in common, yet it is the small differences among us that seem to dominate interaction.
Next Article:Looking for inclusion: as a minority group, people with disabilities, and their families, are fighting to have their needs met, and to be seen as...

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