Chretién goverment quietly accelerates piecemeal re-definition to satisfy activists

The gay-rights agenda took a giant step forward in Canada over the last few months, following the announcement of a court challenge to 58 federal statutes and what seemed to be the Liberal government’s cave-in to that threat.

On Jan. 7, the pro-gay Foundation for Equal Families (FFEF) began its legal challenge to all federal laws that do not recognize people in same-sex relationships as “spouses.” FFEF spokesman Bob Gallagher admitted that the gay lobby is impatient with Parliament’s handling of the same-sex issue, and that the organization would seek the policy change in the courts.

The FFEF said the time was right for such a move, since it could build on recent victories for homosexuals in the Egan, Rosenberg and Vriend rulings. “The courts have proved to be the community’s most reliable friend, but at the current pace it will take tens of years, hundreds of cases and millions of dollars to challenge each of the 58 laws individually,” an FFEF press release said.

Following the announcement of the lawsuit, the federal government’s reaction could only be described as unclear.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan suggested the government was preparing to recognize same-sex couples. But the next day, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien seemed to undermine her, by saying the government was merely examining the issue and such legislation was “not on the agenda at this time.”

The Jan. 8 Ottawa Citizen reported federal lawyers were already examining ways to redress “inequality for homosexual couples” in legislation and were “preparing to put same-sex partners on a similar legal footing as heterosexuals.”

In fact, one government department had already proposed changes to recognize same-sex partners. The day before the FFEF filed the court challenge, Lucienne Robillard, the citizenship and immigration minister, announced that homosexuals would be able to sponsor their foreign partners as immigrants.

On March 29, the Globe and Mail reported that Finance Minister Paul Martin is preparing to amend the Income Tax Act and the laws covering the Canada Pension Plan to include gays as “spouses.” The article indicated Martin is planning the changes in light of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision last year in the Rosenberg case, in which the opposite-sex definition of “spouse” in the Income Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional. The federal government chose not to appeal the ruling, in spite of its implications.

While momentum seems to be on the side of the gay lobby, apparently those in favour of such changes feel the government still isn’t acting fast enough. On Feb. 2, four MPs, one each from the Bloc Québécois, the Liberals, the NDP, and the PCs, announced they had formed a pro-gay caucus that would seek to change the definition of spouse in federal statutes to include homosexuals.

Just the day before, the National Post reported that the government, pre-empting the court challenge, was planning to change the definition of “spouse” in its laws to include same-sex couples. The story, focusing on the government’s polling and communications strategy on the issue, didn’t say whether changes would be made through “one all-encompassing omnibus bill, or … a step-by-step approach.” The National Post reported insiders as saying the government is “leaning toward proceeding case by case because it would be less cumbersome and less of a focal point for opponents of gay rights.”

The most recent change has homosexual parents in MPs’ offices qualifying for up to 12 weeks of parental leave with benefits and 93 per cent of their salary. This benefit is available to both adopting or birth parents. The decision was made in secret and not reported until March 16.

Reform MP Eric Lowther (Calgary Centre) told The Interim he is concerned with the way the changes are being made. “If the government wants to address the same-sex issue, let it do it openly and let there be a debate.” He also said there will be a financial cost that comes with these changes. “It’s not the government’s money, it’s the people’s money.” The Bloc’s Réal Ménard has said it will cost no more than $12 million.