3 min

Delirious optimism

Our relationships are about to be recognized

BOB GALLAGHER. Pleased to be equal. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

The Foundation For Equal Families won’t withdraw its spousal rights lawsuit against the federal government until Bill C-23 has actually become law.

“We are extremely happy and joyous for the lesbian and gay community to be able to come to the table as equal partners under the law,” said foundation spokesperson Bob Gallagher at a press conference.

“We’ve always said that we will not step down from the court challenge until the laws are enacted that address each and every one of these.

But same-sex couples will be legally equal to heterosexual common-law couples if federal omnibus legislation goes through.

Just don’t call your partner a spouse, because Ottawa is refusing to recognize gay marriage.

The Liberal government introduced Bill C-23 – an Act To Modernize The Statutes Of Canada In Relation To Benefits And Obligations, on Feb 11 (it passed second reading a few days later, and will go to committee in early March). It would update 68 federal laws and regulations.

The new legislation would extend the benefits and obligations of heterosexual common law couples to gay men and lesbians who have lived together for a year or more. Where the word spouse appeared, the wording would read spouse or common-law partner.

The special rights reserved for heterosexual married spouses, on the other hand, would be limited to only a handful of laws specific to marriage, such as the Divorce Act and name changes.

An estimated 140,000 households across the country would be affected, said government officials at a technical briefing presented by five of the 20 separate federal departments and agencies affected. But federal bureaucrats said they have no accurate figures for the number of same-sex couples who live together. Nor is it certain how many gay Canadians would be willing to seek such benefits.

Gay couples who have lived together for at least a year would qualify for benefits, the same length of time as common-law couples.

Under the proposed legislation, same-sex couples would be eligible for benefits, including:

• Child-care tax breaks

• Pension benefits for a survivor’s partner

• Old Age Security, the right to claim income supplement

• Income Tax, claim tax credit for dependent partner or children, and access income splitting, under which higher-earning partners can attribute some of their income to their partner

• Conjugal prison visits

• Bankruptcy protection, allowing transfer of title to a partner

• Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act

• Conflict of interest laws regarding legal obligations

• Access to Employment Insurance when relocating to stay with a partner

• Tax breaks on retirement savings plans.

In the wake of numerous same-sex rights court decisions – and the lawsuit filed just over a year ago by the Foundation For Equal Families – Ottawa was left with little choice.

Some Liberal MPs have joined members of Reform in threatening to withhold their support unless benefits are extended to other non-conjugal relationships, like siblings who live together.

“This legislation sends the clear message that the era of discrimination is reaching an end. That’s something [in which] all Canadians can take pride,” said John Fisher, the executive director of Equality For Gays And Lesbians Everywhere.

Fisher said rightwing critics of the legislation are in fact masking their long-standing opposition to recognize same-sex couples at all.

“[They] are using this as a smokescreen to mask their opposition to recognizing same-sex couples at all. If you listen to those MPs driving the charge for recognition of other family forms, they’re the same MPs who voted against protecting gays and lesbians from hate crimes. They’re the same MPs who voted against our rights to equal protection in the workplace from discrimination,” he said.

He said EGALE isn’t opposed to broadening the legislation, but that Bill C-23 targets the inequalities that have been ruled unacceptable by the courts.

Critics also asked how the government plans to determine whether a couple are living in a conjugal relationship, sharing sexual intimacies.

“I believe this legislation is about tolerance and fairness,” Justice

Minister Anne McLellan told a throng of reporters on Parliament Hill.

“Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. There is absolutely no confusion about that. The definition of the word spouse refers to the institution of marriage. We don’t need to change it,” she said after tabling the legislation.

EGALE and the Foundation For Equal Families pledged to continue to fight for the right to marry.

The cost of the changes will be minimal as some couples may actually find themselves paying more to the government as a result of the amendment. For example, some couples may no longer be able to qualify for GST credits for lower income earners because they will have to combine their incomes for tax purposes.

“Based on work done by the Department Of Finance, we believe the cost will be neutral or minimal,” said McLellan. “We are extending not only benefits but obligations. Because the two go together, the work done by the Department Of Finance leads us to believe that the costs will be minimal or neutral.”