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Majority of queer couples not married

Census records more than 45,000 same-sex couples in Canada

On Sep 12, Statistics Canada released the findings from its 2006 census, the first to include data on same-sex married couples. The census found that only 7,460 or 16.5 percent of Canada’s 45,350 queer couples are married; the remainder are in common-law relationships.

“I think that’s a pretty good number considering it hasn’t been that long,” says Helen Kennedy, executive director of Canada’s national gay lobby group, Egale.

The findings contradict earlier data released by Egale affiliate Canadians for Equal Marriage, which reported 12,438 married same-sex couples by the end of summer 2006.

“The Canadians for Equal Marriage figures include all couples who have applied for marriage licenses,” explains Kennedy.

“Some of those figures include couples who’ve come up from the States to get married and people who’ve come from other jurisdictions around the world from countries that might not recognize same-sex marriage. There’s some differential there, and there’s also a differential in terms of the number of people who didn’t check the ‘other’ box,” she says, referring to Stats Can’s contentious instruction to married same-sex couples to check the ‘other’ box rather than the usual ‘husband or wife’ option on the census form.

At the time, a spokesperson for the government agency acknowledged that the form was outdated because it was prepared before gay marriage was legalized.

Methodological questions aside, the census indicates that, across Canada, gay and lesbian couples are far more likely to be common-law than married. In Quebec, only 9.2 percent of same-sex couples are married; that figure jumps to 21.5 percent in Ontario and 19.4 percent in British Columbia.

The option of marriage seems most popular in the north, where 40 percent of queer couples in the Yukon and 37.5 percent of queer couples in the Northwest Territories are married.

“It probably has everything to do with the long cold winters,” quips Lorne Gushue, a Yellowknife civil servant who was a volunteer director of OutNorth, Yellowknife’s queer community association, for 10 years.

Though the census also shows that queer couples are most likely to live in big urban centres (82 percent do), Gushue isn’t surprised by the queer presence up north. The northern capitals offer queers services and amenities not typically found in other small towns across Canada, he says.

“So being queer in a small town in NWT is less problematic. It’s a very diverse community across the board and people care more about who you are than what you are.”

But Kennedy says the census results might not capture the full queer presence in Canada, especially in rural areas.

“A lot of people are afraid to come out,” she explains. “There is a fear that still exists and especially when you live in small, rural parts of the country. Even in larger centres too, people still have that sense of fear to out themselves on paper, even though in every instance you don’t have to put your name and address. But there’s still that sense of outing yourself to the government and not everyone is comfortable to do that.”

Still, Ron Dutton, curator of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Archives, believes the numbers are part of a wider trend. The census found that common-law unions are becoming more popular across the board —and beginning to outpace marriage —with 2.8 million Canadians now living common-law, up by 19 percent since the 2001 census.

“I think in many ways gay people, in particular, have been alienated from those sorts of [marriage] strictures,” he says. “Whether the state or the church likes our relationships or not we’re going forward with them and we are formalizing relationships personally without recourse to those kinds of state-sanctioned formulas or ceremonies.”

“I’m a man of a certain age and the state wouldn’t permit me to do this over many years of my life and now I don’t care to ask their opinion,” he continues. “I certainly don’t require any kind of approval from them to do this.”

Gay author and philosophy instructor Stan Persky believes this census dispels the “neo-conservative wolf cries” that said same-sex marriage would undermine the institution of marriage.

“One of the reflections to draw from the census is now gay marriage exists a lot of people have taken advantage of it —if only a minority among gay couples —and it at least demonstrates that the world doesn’t go to pieces if you have legal gay marriage,” he says.

To Kennedy, the census is not about the numbers. “It’s about equality and the right to marry,” she says. “It’s a human rights issue as much as anything else. The numbers will give the government an opportunity to look at things like policy surrounding same-sex seniors, seniors housing. It allows the government to develop policy when looking at queer issues and this is a good thing.”