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Friday, May 21, 1999

Ontario premier ready to respect same-sex spouses
Supreme court ruling: 'It's not my definition of family, but it is others', ' says Harris

John Ibbitson, with files from Tom Arnold, Robert Benzie, and Sarah Galashan
National Post

NIAGARA FALLS - Gay rights became an election issue in Ontario yesterday as Mike Harris, the premier, said he would respect the Supreme Court decision on same-sex spousal support, despite personal reservations, and Howard Hampton, the New Democrat leader, criticized him for waiting too long to act.

Mr. Harris said that, if re-elected, he will abide by the Supreme Court decision ordering his government to change its Family Law Act to include same-sex spouses.

"We respect the constitution of Canada," Mr. Harris told reporters shortly after the Supreme Court decision became public. "Premiers across the country wanted to get clarification of the law, let it go through the Supreme Court, and find out what was constitutional and what wasn't. This has decided it. It has brought some finality and some certainty to it, and I think that's always helpful.

Mr. Harris ruled out using the constitution's "notwithstanding clause" --which allows provinces to nullify court rulings that limit provincial powers -- to override the decision.

"I'm not a fan of the notwithstanding clause at the best of times," he said.

But the Ontario premier made it clear he did not agree with the court's decision.

"It's not my definition of family, but it is others', and the courts have ruled that's constitutional," he said.

"My family is Janet and I and our two great kids, Jeffrey and Michael, and that's our family," he later added. "And there are other definitions and [the court] has ruled that for constitutional purposes -- and in this case for alimony benefits -- they qualify too."

Mr. Harris evaded answering whether the provincial government would voluntarily bring other statutes with the traditional definition of spouse into conformity with the Supreme Court ruling, or wait for individual court challenges.

"I haven't even seen the ruling," he said. "I'm not sure how far-reaching the implications are. The lawyers will be looking at it and, as I say, we'll respect the constitution."

Mr. Harris and his caucus voted against legislation in 1994 introduced by the NDP government of Bob Rae that would have extended all spousal benefits to same-sex couples. The bill died when Liberals and some New Democrats also voted against it. Mr. Harris has studiously avoided the matter during his four years as premier.

"I've made it very clear in the last [election] campaign and this campaign that it was not our top priority," he said, adding he preferred to concentrate on jobs, including "making sure that gays and lesbians had jobs."

Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader, has tried to make same-sex benefits an issue in this election, promising to entrench them if elected premier. He said yesterday he fully supported the Supreme Court ruling.

Asked why he had opposed the NDP legislation in 1994, Mr. McGuinty said he had changed his mind.

"You know one of the important things that you find in politics? Sometimes if you shut up and listen, you learn. I learned on that issue," he said. "I had the opportunity to talk to parents of gay and lesbian children. And they have asked me specifically, 'make sure that people don't discriminate against my kid.' "

Howard Hampton, leader of the Ontario New Democrats, said yesterday he is a longtime supporter of gay rights.

"We took the position back in 1991 and 1992 that changes had to be made in Ontario's laws," he said. "The fact that the Harris government fought this, that they appealed this to the Supreme Court of Canada just shows how wrong they were."

If elected, Mr. Hampton said an NDP government would introduce a law that would ensure marriage and adoption for same sex couples.

Mr. Harris' caucus includes a number of "family values" MPPs who oppose expanding rights for homosexuals. One of them, Bill Murdoch, said the government should consider invoking the notwithstanding clause, but only after consulting with the caucus following the June 3 election, assuming the Conservatives win.

"It's the sort of thing caucus should help decide," he said.

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