MLAs say no to same-sex amendment
It may not be long before the GNWT faces a court challenge over its rejection of same-sex couples.
IQALUIT Legislators who voted down a motion to recognize homosexual couples in territorial family law abdicated their responsibility to protect all northerners equally, critics charged this week.
And at least one lobby group has vowed to support a court challenge of the GNWT legislation on grounds that it is unconstitutional.
“It’s a disappointment, for sure,” said Zoe Raemer, president of Out North, a Yellowknife-based gay rights organization.
“Given though, that we’ve had an opportunity to raise awareness around the issue with elected representatives and the public at large, hopefully it’s a step along that road to getting the kind of legal protection that we’re asking for.”
A proposed amendment to Bill 3, the GNWT’s new Family Law Act, would have extended the legal definition of spouse to include same-sex couples. This would have ensured that gays and lesbians in long-term relationships are entitled to the same consideration as heterosexual couples when they separate, including the right to apply for spousal support.
The motion, introduced by Yellowknife North MLA Roy Erasmus, was defeated in the Legislative Assembly last Friday by a vote of 10 to 5, with two abstentions.
Objections on moral grounds
Some MLAs, such as Inuvik MLA Floyd Roland, opposed the amendment on moral grounds.
“To me, the word spouse implies marriage, a husband and wife,” said Roland, who alluded to homesexuality as an unnatural “lifestyle choice” in his speech on the floor of the legislative assembly.
“Without a mother and a father there would be no conception. There is no other way of doing things besides how we have been made. To accept anything less than that, would be saying that we disagree with the ultimate reality that life is based on procreation, man and woman, joined in unity.”
That kind of talk drew the severest criticism from Out North’s Raemer.
“The job of the government isn’t to define what a family is, it’s to encourage laws which protect all citizens equally,” Raemer said.
“I think they’ve failed at that in this case, and therefore it’s not just a setback for gays and lesbians, but for all citizens of the Northwest Territories.”
Is civil law enough?
Nunakput MLA Vince Steen, who also voted against the amendment, compared same-sex relationships to business partnerships, whose disputes can be readily handled in civil court under existing laws.
“Because I feel there are avenues open for these people and I am talking about same gender partnerships, I believe that we are not interfering with their constitutional rights,” Steen said.
Court challenge looming
Courts in other jurisdictions, however, have ruled that restricting the definition of spouse to heterosexual couples is, indeed, unconstitutional.
In a case known as M versus H, which is now before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Ontario Court Appeal ruled that to restrict the obligation for spousal support to heterosexual couples, would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A final ruling in that case is expected early next year.
“I can’t see why it would be any different here,” said Raemer. “Knowing that full well, and still passing the legislation as is, is a blatant invitation to a court challenge, and you can count on the fact that we will be pursuing it.”
In his own speech to the members, Roy Erasmus, also warned that by denying equal protection to same-sex couples, the GNWT would be in violation of the Constitution.
Erasmus supported the motion to recognize same-sex couples on a deeper personal level, too.
“Being a native person I have lived with discrimination since I was a child,” Erasmus told the legislative assembly, “and I have taught my children not to discriminate.
“I feel that it is my responsibility not to discriminate in the laws that I pass.”
Raemer said Erasmus and other MLAs who supported the same-sex amendment Yellowknife Frame Lake MLA Charles Dent, Iqaluit MLA Ed Picco, Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger and Yellowknife Center MLA Jake Ootes deserve to be commended for their progressive thinking.
“They knew they had an opportunity to show leadership and foresight on an issue, not to have their legislative responsibility dictated to them by the courts,” Raemer said.