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La bellwether province

Why Quebec's gay marriage case is a big deal

Canadians living in what many Quebecers call the ROC – the rest of Canada – can be forgiven for thinking that a same-sex marriage lawsuit currently winding its way through the Quebec court system will have little effect on the ROC.



Montreal couple Michael Hendricks and René LeBoeuf, together 29 years, are suing both the federal and Quebec governments for the right to marry in what many observers say is shaping up to be the most important gay-rights case in the history of Canada. That’s because similar cases in the rest of Canada will not affect Quebec and its Civil Code whereas the Quebec case will affect the entire country because it is also challenging federal and common law.



“I suspect the reason there hasn’t been much coverage about our case in the rest of Canada is just the social differences between the two societies,” Hendricks says. “What happens in Quebec isn’t reported elsewhere unless it involves language laws. I don’t even think we’re even getting significant coverage on same-sex civil unions. I don’t think people understand the cases in Ontario and British Columbia will have minimal impact in Quebec and our case will have maximum impact outside Quebec.”



The most recent news report outside Quebec covering Hendricks and LeBoeuf’s Mar 22 Quebec Superior Court hearings over the impact of the Quebec government’s recent “civil union” proposal was by the Canadian Press on March 22. “A gay couple that wants to get married rejected Quebec’s proposed legislation on same-sex civil unions as an alternative to marriage,” CP reported.



But Hendricks says the Canadian Press got it wrong.



“We think civil unions are a good first step and we will get one if the law passes,” he says.



Hendricks also says Quebec Superior Court Justice Louise Lemelin scheduled the hearings so “we could testify why a civil union is not enough. Marriage is social recognition and as Canadian citizens we have the right to a conjugal regime that is recognized throughout Canada. The same is true of registered civil unions in Nova Scotia – they’re not transportable and as Canadians we have the right to travel sea to sea to sea and have the same rights as every other Canadian.”



Veteran gay activist Hendricks and LeBoeuf have mortgaged their home to cover legal fees that have already topped $160,000. Montreal’s gay community raised an additional $7,500 at a Feb 6 dinner benefit.



“The biggest support outside Quebec is from Ontario couples visiting Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell’s www.equalmarriage.ca website,” Hendricks says. “Some have also donated money. Egale [the national lobby group], on the other hand, has donated $1,000 to the Quebec Coalition For Same-Sex Marriage but they haven’t donated a penny directly to our case.”



Hendricks admits he is surprised over the widespread support for gay marriage in Quebec.



“When we filed our lawsuit in 1998 there was little support within the gay community for gay marriage. But now it’s universally accepted that we should have the right to be married. That’s an enormous change,” he says. “We’ve also seen support among heterosexuals in Quebec grow from 52 percent in January 1998 to 76 percent in a June 2001 poll by Leger Marketing.”



Despite widespread public support, Hendricks expects Quebec and Ottawa will appeal a pro-gay marriage ruling by the Quebec Superior Court that is expected by June.



“The government is trailing behind the wishes of the population and opposes gay marriage,” Hendricks says, echoing pundits who say Quebec’s proposed civil-unions law is simply a ploy by the Parti Québecois to boost its sagging popularity before it calls an election.



But if the law passes before the Quebec National Assembly’s summer recess, it will enshrine both same-sex and opposite-sex civil unions (thus ridding the government of that pesky “separate but equal” argument) and give same-sex couples full parental rights. It would also make Quebec, after the Netherlands, the most progressive jurisdiction on the planet for same-sex couples and non-traditional families. The law will also likely include a sunset clause which will further pressure the feds to legalize gay marriage.



“Parti Québecois minister Andre Boisclair, who is openly gay, told us it isn’t a political ploy,” Hendricks says. “I think they will pass the law by Jun 24. I think the Parti Québecois is trying to cut a new image for their party. They want a glowing human-rights legacy because they could have done this a long time ago – during the 1994 provincial election and then again in the 1995 referendum – and now they face defeat in the courts.”



Even if Quebec passes its civil unions law, the province and Ottawa will likely appeal any pro-gay marriage ruling by the Quebec Superior Court.



“We expect our case will be appealed by either side to the Supreme Court Of Canada where we will likely only get a final legal ruling in 2006, hopefully before Montreal hosts the 2006 Gay Games,” Hendricks says.



“Civil unions are, of course, a big advance and will eventually pave the way for gay marriage. Right now our rights are increasingly recognized but governments won’t give us the whole package. They are willing to give us the contents but not the container. And it’s the container – marriage itself – that is important to René and myself because it is the gold standard of acceptance in our society.”



* Richard Burnett is Editor-at-large of Montreal’s Hour magazine.