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Immense victory for human rights in Canada

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Canada, like most largely English speaking countries, has an immense body of law that grants special rights to heterosexuals. These same rights are denied to homosexuals. Gay and lesbian groups have counted 58 separate pieces of Federal law that deny gays and lesbians equal human rights. The Federal government announced on 1999-JAN-19 that it is planning sweeping changes to dozens of pieces of legislation in order to correct this inequality.

The law structure of Canada is quite different from that of the U.S. The country has a Criminal Code that defines law for all 10 provinces and 2 territories. It has innumerable statutes that affect every Canadian. On the other hand, most law in the United States that discriminates against gays and lesbians is the responsibility of the states. As an example, at the turn of the century, all 50 states had laws on the books that provided severe jail sentences for homosexual sexual activity. 50 separate campaigns have had to be mounted to overturn these laws - one in each state. That activity is still continuing. But in Canada, only a single modification to the Criminal Code at the Federal level was needed to decriminalize sexual activity between persons of the same gender.

The courts in Canada have consistently ruled in favor of same-sex rights in recent years. The government has been required to change many statutes. In 1998, they lost the Rosenberg case in which the Ontario Court of Appeals declared that the Income Tax Act was unconstitutional. They ordered the government to change the law so that widowed same-sex partners could collect survivor benefits. The government didn't even bother to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The Liberal party currently controls the Canadian government. They had promised gay and lesbians groups for many years that significant changes would be made to legislation in order to end the current special privileges granted to heterosexuals. But no action was ever taken. As in the U.S., those who are strongly opposed to equality outnumber the gays and lesbians themselves. So, any change in the law would probably cause the Liberal party to lose votes in the next election.

In 1998-DEC, Foundation for Equal Families, a LesGay group, announced that it was initiatiating an unprecedented action against the Federal government: it was initiating a single class action lawsuit on behalf of all of the homosexuals in Canada, which simultaneously attacked 58 pieces of discriminatory legislation. The government did not directly respond to the action.

In early 1999-JAN, Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard announced that her department would change its regulations to treat same-sex immigrant couples the same as heterosexual couples. There was "very little evidence of a backlash" 1to this decision. The lack of reaction by conservative Christian groups apparently strengthened  the resolve of the government to right an historic wrong. They decided to capitulate. They will bring forth new legislation and make changes to existing regulations in order to treat same-sex couples in the same way as common-law heterosexual couples. An unidentified government source said: "The government has to deal with this sooner or later. It's unavoidable." David Corbett, a lawyer for the Foundation for Equal Families, said that the group is willing to drop the court action if the government voluntarily makes changes under a set time line.

The government has two alternatives: to bring forth a single omnibus bill that would change all 58 federal statutes at once, or to propose many pieces legislation to change the laws one at a time.

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Reference:

  1. Erin Anderssen, "Ottawa to enshrine same-sex rights," The Globe and Mail, 1999-JAN-20. Pages A1 & A5.

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