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Monday, October 18, 1999Justice minister considering extending benefits rights
Defining dependents: Debate reopens legal definition of couples' obligations
OTTAWA - Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, is considering an extension of legal rights to economically dependent couples, such as widowed sisters and brothers, or even army buddies.
The move would mean that the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year, which extended benefits to homosexuals, would be regarded not as ending debate on the controversial issue, but as a starting point for a much-wider expansion of codified legal obligations to relationships not previously covered.
The Supreme Court decision is the cornerstone of a conference this week at which academics, politicians and government officials will debate the merits of broadening the definition of couples included in equality laws.
"I think the question of relationships of dependency, how we recognize and acknowledge those relationships in Canadian society is an important issue and it is one that we as a government will look at and continue to look at," said Ms. McLellan.
The federal government is also planning to amend almost 60 federal statutes to include gays and lesbians, including pension and income tax laws.
The Law Commission of Canada, a federal agency which advises Ottawa on law reform, is examining the prospect of extending benefits to all relationships and plans to issue a report next year.
The commission is co-sponsoring the conference this week with Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., where about 100 participants will examine the prospect. One idea would be to create registered domestic partnerships, in which couples could be legally recognized simply by signing up.
Several European countries have already adopted such partnerships and the idea has also emerged in some provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta.
But laws vary, with some being exclusive to gays and lesbians and others including other relationships as well. Conference participants will examine both prospects.
The idea of registered partnerships comes as provinces are scrambling to amend their family laws to include homosexuals following a May 20 Supreme Court ruling involving two Toronto lesbians known as M and H, which effectively changed the definition of spouse to include a same-sex partner. The court gave Ontario six months to change its Family Law Act.
Governments across Canada have had little time to focus on future court decisions because they are still struggling with the Supreme Court ruling.
A poll commissioned by the federal Justice Department last year reveals that the government is looking beyond the issue of how to treat people in same-sex relationships.
The survey, conducted by Angus Reid to measure public opinion on same-sex benefits, also suggested that 71% of Canadians either strongly or somewhat agreed that benefits should not depend on marriage, but on any relationship of economic dependency in which people live together.
This prospect was floated briefly by Allan Rock in 1994, when he was justice minister, and some people saw merit in covering a wide range of relationships so that homosexual couples were not the exclusive, controversial focus.
"I think some organizations would see registered partnerships as a less controversial way to eliminate discrimination against same-sex couples than marriage," said Martha Bailey, a Queen's University law professor and conference organizer.
But Martha McCarthy, a Toronto lawyer who will speak at the conference, said it is wrong that lawmakers would consider lumping homosexual couples with other relationships of economic dependency.
"I find it offensive that we say now that the gays and lesbians are in, it's a free-for-all," said Ms. McCarthy, who represented the winning party in the M and H ruling.
"Regardless of our sexual orientation, to compare my intimate relationship with my spouse to the relationship that I have with my brother or my university roommate, both of whom I love dearly, is totally offensive to the primary crucial nature of my spousal relationship."
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