Ottawa
2 min

Victory in the justice system

Ottawa to recognize same-sex marriages

LICENSED. Heather Gass (left) and Lisa Lachance step into the history books as one of the first same-sex couples in Ontario to receive a marriage license. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Same-sex couples across Canada will soon be able to legally marry, says Prime Minister Jean Chretien – unless the House of Commons votes against it.



Chretien announced on Tue, Jun 17 that the federal government will not appeal a recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.



“We will not be appealing the recent decision on the definition of marriage,” Chretien told reporters. “Rather we will be proposing legislation that will protect the right of churches and religious organizations to sanctified marriage as they define it. At the same time, we’ll ensure that our legislation includes a legally recognized same-sex couple.”



Chretien said the legislation would be referred to the Supreme Court for legal advice on the drafting of a bill, but “after that, it will be put to a free vote in the House of Commons.”



In a free vote, MPs are free to vote however they wish, instead of following party policy.



Chretien’s decision follows closely the decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal on Tue, Jun 10 to uphold a lower court decision to legally allow same-sex marriages.



The Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the Charter of Rights and immediately changed the definition of marriage from a union between a man and a woman to the voluntary union for life of two persons.



Since that ruling, city and town halls across Ontario have been inundated by gays and lesbians seeking marriage licenses.



After the ruling, 24 same-sex couples descended on Ottawa City Hall to get their licenses, something City Councillor Alex Munter calls history in the making.



“It was an overwhelming sense of joy and real profound sense of history. Twenty-five years from now there will be people who won’t be able to imagine a time when gays and lesbians didn’t have the same basic fundamental rights of citizenship,” says Munter.



Munter believes that both the courts and the general public understand that same-sex marriages is a reality. “Government has to abide by the Constitution and when they run afoul of the law, they lose control of issues,” he says.



In its ruling, the Appeal Court says excluding same-sex couples from marriage perpetuates the view that they are less worthy of recognition than opposite-sex relationships and in doing so offends the dignity of persons in same-sex relationships.



The appeal ensued when eight same-sex couples in Toronto applied for civil marriage licenses from the Toronto City Clerk three years ago. The Clerk didn’t deny the licenses, but instead said she would apply to the courts for direction and would hold the licenses in the interim.



In July of last year, the Divisional Court ruled that denying the marriage license was in violation of the Charter and gave the government two years to remedy the law. The Attorney-General of Canada appealed the ruling.



Ontario’s Appeal Court decision joins court rulings in British Columbia and Quebec that also back same-sex unions.



The court ruling had also gotten an extra boost from the House of Commons Justice Committee. In a 9-8 vote, the Committee recommended accepting the ruling and not appealing the matter to the Supreme Court.



The debate has also reached the political campaigns in the Liberal leadership race. Paul Martin told a women’s group in Quebec City that the government can no longer discriminate against gay couples who want to marry, and both Finance Minister John Manley and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps expressed support for same-sex unions.



“I think on balance people recognize that the decisions of the courts are pointing in a direction from which it would be difficult, if we wanted to, to turn back,” Manley said on Tue, Jun 17.