Mr. Speaker, this debate is in some respects a strange debate. One has the impression of two different communities, two solitudes, and perhaps a good deal of the confusion stems from the fact that people have not read the bill. I would not discourage them from reading the bill. It is not a piece of poetry. It is a rather prosaic bill. It is a legislative response, as is the obligation of parliament under our system of government. With our modified, quasi separation of powers, we have a response by parliament to a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in M. v H. It is a response to that decision, no more and no less.
If we read the bill looking for excitement, it will not be found. It puts together 68 existing federal statutes that are affected by the court decision. It corrects—and that is a legal word—those pieces of law by appropriate amendments in response to the supreme court decision, no more and no less. It is a compendium of 68 laws. It is not a bill on marriage. Anybody who read the bill would find that out.
The title gives it away immediately, the modernization of benefits and obligations act. It is not a bill on marriage. It is not an amendment to section 15 of the charter of rights on which the original decision in M. v H. in the Supreme Court of Canada was based. Obviously, to amend section 15 we would have to have the concurrence of the federal parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures. It is essentially a carpentering job. Someone very carefully put together what is a very dull bill with limited objectives.
In my earlier address to the House on this bill I explained that it is limited to its special mandate, a legislative response as is our constitutional obligation as parliament to the judicial ruling, that it does not alter the legal definition of marriage in any way, one way or another.
In that sense I regard the government amendment—in a legal sense—as being unnecessary. It is inserted, though, as lawyers often do, in the phrase ex abundante cautela—for greater certainty. But it does not change the definition of marriage. It does not add to the fact. The bill itself does not do that.
Any steps in the redefinition of marriage, if one were to attempt that, would require a comprehensive piece of legislation which would spell out concrete rights and obligations, conditions of a status and how one enters into it. It would be another law on another occasion. It would be something reached after a prior, necessary community consensus had been built, with some degree of interparty discussion. That is for the future if someone wishes to proceed that way.
What is interesting in terms of this debate, and the constructive and useful thing which has emerged from it, is the opportunity to ask parliament to take note of the changes in society, the general recognition that relationships can exist on bases where both parties recognize them but which have no necessary connection with a sexual relationship.
We speak of bona fide dependency relationships. This is an idea whose time, historically, has come. I am encouraged in that by the large amount of correspondence, messages, communications and personal meetings I have had in response to remarks which I and others have made on this particular situation.
What are dependency relationships? They are relationships of children and parents. We find many situations in our society where children support an aged parent, or siblings, brothers and sisters, or two sisters and two brothers support each other.
We find many situations of persons not in a familial relationship who share a life together without any sexual relationship. If it is a demonstrated, bona fide relationship, should the law not be prepared to recognize that in our society?
It does require a bit of work, and the minister promised to study this. I said “With all deliberate speed”, in the phrase of the United States supreme court, “can we not get some reasonably quick action?” I understand that will be done.
There will be tradeoffs involved which have to be understood and represented in a legal form, that is to say, a bona fide relationship with legal consequences cannot be unilaterally terminated except for cause. There would be a limitation on the power unilaterally to renege, amend or terminate; proof of registration or something else to establish the beginning of a relationship and the irrevocability of its termination.
It is not exactly tabula rasa. My colleague, the excellent member for Parkdale—High Park, who has given a good deal of thought to these problems, reminded me of the law school cases which I learned in my second month in law school, Murray and Alderson. In the 19th century, courts were being asked to recognize such relationships and give financial consequences to them, where dependency was proven and where in fact both parties recognized them adequately. This could be put in the legal form of a statute. It exists in a more rudimentary form through the common law.
When I speak of non-revocability, it would seem to me that parties could not terminate unilaterally, although there may be special circumstances. For example, a child supporting an aged parent might choose to get married. It does not terminate the obligation to the parent. One may look to some sort of comparative adjustment of the obligations.
I cite this simply to say that there are problems, but they are not difficult problems. There are no essential legal barriers that wise legislation could not take care of.
There will be claims of the survivors' in dependency relationships to estates, to immovables, but once again these are issues that can be addressed. The legal remedies for them, the legal formula to take care of them, can be established without an undue amount of work required. There are sufficient precedents in the common law to provide just that sort of base for legislative action.
The constructive thing that has come out of this debate has been a heightened community awareness that the time perhaps has come to give legal recognition and apply legal consequences to dependency relationships voluntarily entered into and established on a bona fide basis. That is the interesting challenge.
This is a modest bill, a prosaic bill that simply changes 68 federal laws in response to a supreme court decision. It is our constitutional obligation, as a co-ordinate organ of government, to respond in that fashion. It does not venture into the definition of a new code of marriage. That, if it is to be attempted, would be a subject for another time, another debate and another law if and when the sufficient consensus is built in support of it.