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Gay Marriages in Canada

Part 1 of two parts

A brief list of major events
from 2001 to 2005-MAY:

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Brief list of major events:

Gay marriages are also called "Same Sex Marriages" with the acronym "SSM."

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the provincial governments of Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec recognized gay relationships and granted restricted rights to gays and lesbians, that were nearly equivalent to those enjoyed by heterosexual common-law couples. But they were not called marriages.

After the turn of the millennium, developments were swift:

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2001-JAN-14: At this time, gay couples could not obtain marriage licenses from their province or territory. However, in much of Canada, there is a second path that leads to marriage. A minister, pastor, priest or other member of the clergy can perform a "reading of the banns" for three consecutive weeks announcing an upcoming marriage. This makes a couple eligible to be married in the congregation on the following week, without first having obtained a marriage license.

The banns were read in this way for two same-sex couples at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. They were:

  • Kevin Bourassa to Joe Varnell, and

  • Elaine Vautour to Anne Vautour.

Of course, when the pastor, Rev. Brent Hawkes. attempted to register their marriages, the government office refused to accept them. Thus the two marriages were initially recognized only by the church in which it was performed.

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star 2003-JUN-10: The definition of marriage in Ontario was widened by a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal. They ruled unanimously that same-sex couples of an adequate age can marry. SSM had finally achieved a foothold in one Canadian province. Ontario became the first political jurisdiction in North America to allow SSM. [Massachusetts was the second on 2004-MAY-17.] Two gays, Michael Stark and Michael Leshner anticipated the court ruling and had arranged in advance to obtain a marriage license, to have the usual waiting period waived, and be married almost immediately in Toronto City Hall. Both men had played a major role in the court case. 1 Leaving the building, they and a few other newly married same-sex couples were met by demonstrators, including busloads of Americans with children, who vented their hostility and anger on the happy newlyweds.

As part of their ruling, the court also legalized gay marriages in Ontario that had been previously solemnized by a reading of the banns. And so the two same-sex couples who had been married at the Metropolitan Community Church in 2001 were "grandfathered," and declared to have been married retroactively to 2001. They are believed to have been the first same-sex couple to be married in the entire world during recent history. This was a few months before the Netherlands -- the first full country to legalize SSM -- started to marry same-sex couples.

bullet 2003-JUL: The province of British Columbia followed suit.

bullet 2003-AUG: The deputy Prime Minister, John Manley, commented to the media that the Quebec government will soon start to register SSMs. 2 He was wrong.

bullet 2003-JUL: The federal government submitted draft legislation in the form of a "reference" to the Supreme Court of Canada  which would redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. During late 2004, the Court ruled that the proposed laws were constitutional .

bullet 2003-DEC: Prime Minister Paul Martin asked the Supreme Court whether the addition of a Vermont-style civil union structure to the marriage act would be adequate to make it constitutional.

bullet 2004-MAR: The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that same-sex marriages are legal in the province. SSM became available to about 80% of Canada's population without the spouses having to leave their province of residency.

bullet 2004-JUL: Against the wishes of the federal Attorney General, the Yukon Supreme Court ordered the territory to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and register their subsequent marriages.  Yukon is a territory of Canada, north of the province of British Columbia.

bullet 2004-SEP-14: Justice Ruth Mesbur of the Ontario Superior Court issued the first divorce to a married same-sex couple in Canada. Theirs may have been the first divorce by a same-sex couple in the world.

bullet 2004-SEP-16: A court in Manitoba authorized same-sex marriages in the province.

bullet 2004-SEP-24:  A court in Nova Scotia authorized same-sex marriages there.

bullet 2004-OCT-06 & 07: The Supreme Court of Canada conducted hearings lasting a day and a half on the federal government's SSM reference.

bullet 2004-OCT: Two same-sex couples were raising money to launch a SSM lawsuit in New Brunswick. A lesbian couple launched a similar lawsuit in Saskatchewan.

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bullet 2004-NOV: A court in Saskatchewan authorized same-sex marriages in the province. Among the ten provinces in Canada, only Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island still refused to allow same-sex couples to marry. Two same-sex couples launched a lawsuit in Newfoundland.

bullet 2004-NOV-19: Justice Ruth Mesbur of the Ontario Superior Court handed down her ruling in the SEP-14 same-sex divorce case. She determined that the federal Divorce Act was unconstitutional. In effect, rewrote the law by declaring that "spouse" is to be replaced by the phrase "two persons" married to each other. This ruling applies to a federal statute, passed by Parliament." It therefore redefined the word "spouse" across Canada. Few people noticed.

bullet 2004-NOV-26: Many gays and lesbian widows and widowers were retroactively granted survivor pensions from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).

bullet 2004-DEC-08: The Supreme Court of Canada released its ruling on the Federal Government's reference questions. They advised that the only the federal government has the right to define who can marry, that the government's proposed legislation including SSM would be constitutional if it became law, and that clergy can legally continue to discriminate in selecting which engaged couples they will not marry. The court sidestepped a ruling on whether the constitution actually requires SSM.

bullet 2004-DEC-21: A court in Newfoundland/Labrador ruled that the province must begin to marry same-sex couples.

bullet 2005-FEB-01: The Federal Government introduced Bill C-38 to make SSM available across Canada. The bill involved a simple statement that marriage is a union between "two persons." It also makes minor amendments to eight other existing federal laws. By this time, Justices of the highest courts in British Columbia, Ontario and Québec had unanimously ruled that SSM is required by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By not appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada, those rulings have become binding on the federal government. Still, a sizeable minority of Members of Parliament were expected to violate their oath of office -- which requires them to uphold the Constitution -- by voting against the bill.

bullet 2005-FEB-24: The Ontario Legislature easily passed an omnibus bill which made minor modifications to 73 existing provincial laws. This brought them into alignment with the 2003-JUN-10 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal which legalized same-sex marriage.

bullet 2005-APR-12: A Conservative party amendment to C-38 which would have banned SSM and substituted a system of civil unions for same-sex couples was defeated by a vote of 164 to 132. This was a wider margin than was expected by most commentators. A second-reading vote was expected by mid-April. If C-38 passes, it would be referred to an all-party committee for study.

bullet 2005-MAY-03: The first same-sex wedding of a military couple was celebrated at Airbase Greenwood in Nova Scotia by a United Church of Canada minister from a nearby town. A second same-sex marriage was scheduled for Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec.

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

  1. "Ontario men wed following court ruling," CBC News, 2003-JUN-13, at:
  2. "Thousands rally in de fence of marriage," Today's Family News, Focus on the Family, Canada, 2003-AUG-26.
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Copyright © 1998 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-MAY-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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