Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to rise to speak on this bill on a day that I have no hesitation in calling historic. This is, in fact, a long-awaited day, one which will allow us to enjoy full equality with all other workers.
Before addressing the substance of the bill, what I believe the lawyers call positive law—my colleague, the hon. member for Chambly, will correct me if that is not the correct term—I would like to begin by thanking, by name, the public servants who assisted us in committee: Michelle Gosselin, Stan Farber, Lisa Hitch, Sharon Colbert, Janet McIntyre, who was always there for us and whose help was greatly appreciated, and Valérie Lasher.
As hon. members are aware, it is not commonplace for the opposition to express thanks to the government, but I believe that it is appropriate, given the significance of this bill, as we will never stop saying. This is a restorative bill, one which will remedy decades of injustice toward the homosexual community, and we must rise above partisan differences to thank the government for having had the courage to introduce it.
As well, Bill C-23 is a yardstick by which to measure our society's progress along the path of tolerance. Not very long ago, in 1994 when I was a new MP, full of energy, enthusiasm, and idealism, which incidentally I have never lost, I introduced a very similar bill.
That bill likewise proposed to amend all federal laws containing a heterosexual definition of spouse to include a homosexual one.
At the time in 1994 only 52 members supported the bill and only a single member of cabinet, the then Minister of the Environment and Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. member for Hamilton East, did so.
Today, things have changed considerably. There was considerable dialogue between parliamentarians and the gay community, as well as all those who believe in equality. I would also mention the extremely important role played by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which, since 1979, has signalled discrimination against members of the gay community.
I take this opportunity to thank the various spokespersons of gay associations, such as EGALE, and its executive director, John Fisher. This national group has for many years actively supported equality for gays and lesbians. It is associated with various cases that have come before the supreme court or lower courts, such as the Rosenberg and the Egan-Nesbit cases and, closer to home, the matter of M and H.
I want to thank the people of Quebec, whose voice was extremely important in the debate. I am thinking naturally of Laurent McCutcheon and the coalition he heads so well. This coalition combines unions, such as the CEQ, and community groups. I also want to thank the people in Quebec City, including Claudine Ouellet, who appeared before the parliamentary committee and very eloquently made the case for the need for such a bill.
I also want to thank my colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois, who, on a number of occasions in caucus, permitted me to make presentations and were always most patient. We know that in politics we do not all start from the same point. We have to be prepared to convince people.
The wager we made as parliamentarians, in the Bloc Quebecois and in the other parties, is that we will not constrain, but convince. We made it because we know that words, ideas and values are important in democracy.
I give myself credit for being patient and having worked on this for a long time. This evening, I believe that we will not be disappointed and that a very large number of parliamentarians will work for full equality. When the Speaker rises and puts the question, many members will support the government's initiative on Bill C-23.
I wish to thank the member for Burnaby—Douglas, who is, as members know, one of my friends. In a way, he was a forerunner and paved the way. He too has shown considerable perseverance. I believe that for this evening's results we will owe him a debt of gratitude not just for persevering but for being extremely present in all the debates on the equality of rights of gays and lesbians.
On that note of thanks, let us move to the heart of the debate.
First of all, we must recall that the bill before us is one that is eminently respectful of earlier court rulings. I will, if I may, give a brief background of the gay and lesbian community's quest for the equality that the present government proposes to grant.
It was in 1979 that the Canadian Human Rights Commission first mentioned that sexual orientation should be included in the Canadian Human Rights Act as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
Recognition of same sex couples means recognition of the emotional relationships openly engaged in by homosexuals. First, we had to stop discriminating on an individual basis. That is why the first court challenge involved including sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Act as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
I want those people to clearly understand that the Canadian Human Rights Act is different from the charter. The charter is part of the Constitution; it is the supreme law of the land. It was adopted in 1982 under conditions that we all know and that today's day of celebration prevent me from describing.
By contrast, the Canadian Human Rights Act is an act of parliament. It protects those who receive federal services or who work in a jurisdiction that comes under the federal government. I am thinking of course about banks, telecommunications, postal services and all the other federal jurisdictions.
In 1992, in Haig v Canada, the Ontario court of appeal ruled that it was discriminatory and contrary to section 15 of the charter to not recognize sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. At the time, a decision which could have been binding in Ontario alone was extended to the whole country. Thanks to Kim Campbell, the then Minister of Justice—whom we remember with fondness—that ruling was made binding across Canada.
Then came Bill C-33. I was here when parliament passed it in 1993. The then Minister of Justice, the hon. Allan Rock, introduced a bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, so as to comply with the ruling issued by the Ontario court of appeal.
Following that, a long series of cases were heard by various courts. There were administrative tribunals, judicial tribunals, which declared that it was discriminatory for the workplace not to recognize same sex partners in collective agreements.
Another extremely important case is the 1995 case, initiated in 1993, of Nesbit-Egan v Canada. This one needs particular attention because the supreme court judgment in this case is what has led to our now needing to read section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as including sexual orientation among the prohibited grounds for discrimination.
I will give a quick overview of the case that was brought before the supreme court. Jim Egan and John Nesbit had lived together for more than 40 years. Public opinion is sometimes prejudiced. People think that homosexuals who enter into couple relationships are not always stable people capable of long term relationships.
I am not familiar with your personal life, Mr. Speaker, but just think, here we are dealing with two people who have shared each others' lives for more than 40 years. That is nothing to be sneezed at.
I regret to inform my colleagues that one of them died about a month ago, and his loss was a heavy blow to the gay community.
Mr. Nesbit sought a spousal allowance under the Old Age Security Act. This allowance is usually provided under the law when the partner of the pensioner is between 60 and 65 years old and the couple's total income is less than a given amount, which is adjusted annually. The government denied Mr. Nesbit this allowance on the pretext that the definition of spouse in the law applied only to couples of persons of the opposite sex.
The Nesbit-Egan couple therefore applied to the federal court to have it declare the definition of spouse appearing in the Old Age Security Act discriminatory on the basis of sexual preferences and an infringement of the right to equality guaranteed by section 15. Their application was denied by the trial level court. The decision was appealed to the federal court, and the application was again denied. In legal annals, one must really persevere.
The reason for the denial was that the definition of spouse was not discriminatory under section 15. That is what the federal court said. The court said it denied the spousal allowance because there was no conjugal relationship rather than because of their sexual orientation. The court ruled that the distinction between conjugal and non-conjugal relationships flowing from the definition was not the kind of distinction that went beyond the limits and constituted discrimination.
The case went to the supreme court and, in an extremely tight decision, it replied to three questions. The important thing about this decision is that it ruled that section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be read to include sexual orientation.
This is interesting because, already in 1982—the year the Constitution was patriated and certain aspects of the Constitution were rewritten, not always fairly with respect to Quebec, but that is another matter—people wanted sexual orientation included as a prohibited ground. Who was the Minister of Justice at the time? It was the current Prime Minister, who dismissed this entirely legitimate concern. Those who believed that this kind of discrimination would not be tolerated by the courts turned out to be right.
There was the Rosenberg case, where the Public Service Alliance of Canada challenged the provisions of the Income Tax Act, which did not allow same sex spouses to register retirement savings plans in each other's name or to receive survivor's pensions and allowances. That was discriminatory treatment.
Once again, the courts were extremely receptive and struck down the provisions of the act which did not allow this recognition. The government was asked to change the law, and this led to Bill C-78. The Rosenberg case triggered an important change in the Income Tax Act.
However, the bill now before us is in direct response to the supreme court. This is why I cannot agree with Canadian Alliance members. Generally speaking, and I say this in all friendship, I tend to make a point of not agreeing with them. Canadian Alliance members are not too open-minded when it comes to human rights. We will recall that they voted against Bill C-33, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act. They also voted against my private member's bill.
They opposed Bill C-68, specifically with respect to the recognition of surviving spouse's pension. Today, they are opposing Bill C-23. It should be known that the type of society that the Canadian Alliance is advocating is one where homosexuals would not be recognized.
These people openly wish to maintain discrimination. They are hypocrites. They talk out of both sides of their mouths. Let us be clear: there are people on the Canadian Alliance side who are homophobic. Whenever they had the opportunity to trample or reject the rights of homosexuals, they did so as a monolithic block, with a single voice and guided by intolerance, by unanimously voting against the widely recognized interests of the gay community.
Of course, in a democracy, we have to accept the fact that such people get elected. They get elected by their respective groups of voters, and this is why I respect them. But the Bloc Quebecois and myself will never endorse the type of society that the Canadian Alliance hopes to build.
Some day we will live in a sovereign Quebec. I hope for the rest of Canada that it is never led by the Canadian Alliance. Imagine what Canada would be, with or without Quebec, if, some day, the Canadian Alliance were to form the government. What guarantees could we, all those who believe in individual equality, have with respect to equality of treatment?
Based on my knowledge of the rest of Canada, I believe Canadians outside Quebec are far too generous, far too open, far too sensible to trust the members of the Canadian Alliance.
As I said, this bill before us is directly dictated by a supreme court decision that was brought down on May 20, 1999, eight to one. Anyone familiar with the supreme court knows very well that this is an extremely solid decision, and an extremely significant one. An eight-to-one Supreme Court decision is rather exceptional.
M. v H. was about two lesbians who had lived together for a few years. Before they separated, they had built up a business together and acquired business capital. Under section 29 of the Family Law Act, one of the women demanded support. This support payment was not allowed, because the wording of the act called for support to be paid to a partner of the opposite sex. A whole process of court challenges then ensued, beginning with the Ontario court of first instance and ending with the Supreme Court of Canada. In my opinion, the finding in M. v H. is the most significant as far as human rights are concerned.
What was its finding? It found that Common law relationships are conjugal relationships, which must be considered as such regardless of whether the couple concerned is homosexual or heterosexual.
The supreme court first of all was giving recognition to common law relationships, and furthermore recognized the absolute equality there must be between partners in a common law relationship, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual in orientation.
I would like to continue by citing two rather long paragraphs I feel constitute the quintessence, the very structure, the main thrust of the supreme court judgment. Out of respect for our interpreters, I shall read them very slowly so that they do not miss anything.
The supreme court made the following statement in defining spouses as set out in section 29 of the Family Law Act.
Essentially, the definition...extends the obligation to provide spousal support...beyond married persons to include individuals in conjugal opposite-sex relationships of some permanence....Same-sex relationships are capable of being both conjugal and lengthy, but individuals in such relationships are nonetheless denied access to the court-enforced system of support provided by the FLA. This differential treatment is on the basis of a personal characteristic, namely sexual orientation, that, in previous jurisprudence, has been found to be analogous to those characteristics specifically enumerated in s. 15(1).
The court is referring here specifically to the decision in Nesbit. I continue:
The crux of the issue is that this differential treatment discriminates in a substantive sense by violating the human dignity of individuals—
I hope that our colleagues in the Canadian Alliance understand clearly that the supreme court is talking about something called human dignity. I do not see how, as lawmakers, we can oppose something called human dignity. I continue:
—in same-sex relationships....The nature of the interest affected is fundamental, namely the ability to meet basic financial needs following the breakdown of a relationship characterized by intimacy and economic dependence. The exclusion of same-sex partners from the benefits of the spousal support scheme implies that they are judged to be incapable of forming intimate relationships of economic interdependence, without regard to their actual circumstances. Taking these factors into account, it is clear that the human dignity of individuals in same-sex relationships is violated by the definition of “spouse” in s. 29 of the FLA.
Indeed, it is desirable. It is possible for a man to love another man, it is desirable and the fact should be fully recognized by the lawmaker. It is possible for a woman to love another woman, it is desirable, it is noble, and it should be given the same recognition by the lawmaker.
No amount of prejudice will prevent the attainment of the equality to which same sex couples are entitled to aspire. We have seen this in the court decisions. We see it in political courage. I am sure that, this evening, many of us here will wish to vote in favour of equality.
We must ask ourselves this question: Why is it important that we show strong support for a bill such as this?
Hours could be spent exploring the cause of homosexuality. As I have often said, I have five siblings, I have extremely normal and wonderful parents, and my mother stayed at home while my father worked. I wanted for neither affection nor love.
There is nothing about how I grew up to suggest any dysfunction in my family, and yet I am homosexual. I am very happy to be so. I am happy, I love life, I love my work, I have friends, I have love in my life, and I want for nothing in that regard.
Let us ask ourselves what it would mean if lawmakers continued to send the message that same sex couples are second class citizens, that, despite the fact that, in many cases, they are taxpayers, they are not entitled to full recognition.
I hope that Canadian Alliance members will reflect on what I am about to say. Mr. Speaker, you were 13, 14 or 15 at one time; you might argue this was some time ago. Whether they live in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montreal or Charlottetown, PEI, when at age 13, 14 or 15, young people discover that they are different from the others in their sexual attraction, because they are attracted to people of the same sex, it is important that they feel they are full-fledged citizens, and to know that, in their lives, regardless of profession and aspirations, lawmakers will provide full recognition and discrimination will be tolerated neither in Quebec nor in Canada.
This is what Bill C-23 proposes to do. What is so threatening about it? Could someone from the Canadian Alliance tell me how the fact that a person chooses to live as a homosexual in society, to engage in an emotional relationship, which the supreme court said ought to be considered as a conjugal relationship, poses a threat to the heterosexual community? What makes Canadian Alliance members view Bill C-23 as a threat to traditional families?
I come from a traditional family. My twin brother has a traditional family. My sister Lorraine has a traditional family with her husband Jean-Pierre and their son Francis. Yet, I do not believe that I, as an individual, threaten the choice they made to form a traditional family.
I believe the hon. members of the Canada Alliance need to review their position. They need to support this bill. Doing so will, in my opinion, enhance their status as a parliamentary group.
What this bill does not change, and it is important to say so, is the definition of marriage. The definition of marriage is not included in this bill. It is part of common law. Nothing in the 300 or so clauses of Bill C-23 changes the definition of marriage.
Those tempted to vote against this bill because they claim it threatens the institution of marriage according to the conventionally held view are, quite simply, wrong.
This bill does not change the definition of cohabitation as it exists in federal statutes, which refer to a period of one year of life together. This bill does not change the consequences and legal facts surrounding separation. According to federal law, common law relationships terminate at the time of a separation. There is nothing in this bill that changes this.
There is no change to section 18 of the Criminal Code, which refers to the fact that offences committed in the presence of one's spouse are not to be presumed to have been committed under compulsion. Not only is that section not changed, neither is section 278, nor 155 on incest, 290 on bigamy, nor 293 on polygamy. Of course, the bill does not make any change to the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act or the Divorce Act.
What the bill provides is that the expression conjugal relationship should be associated and used closely with common law partner.
What criteria are established by the term conjugal relationship, what do we mean when we talk of a conjugal relationship? In Canadian law, since the lower courts examined the term conjugal relationship, we have a fairly clear idea what it means. It means sharing a roof, personal and sexual relations, the presence of services and of social activities, financial support, the image the couple gives of itself in the community. There are of course times when all these elements are present, at other times only some of them may be present.
I would like to give my opinion right off on a very important element of the debate that took place in parliamentary committee and elsewhere. I think that the government was well advised not to recognize in the bill other relationships of interdependence. They do exist in our society: a son caring for his mother, someone else looking after a niece, one co-tenant attending to another, who is perhaps disabled. But these types of interdependence do not constitute conjugal relations.
It is to their great credit that people in our society look after others. We need only think that, in a few years, seniors in Canada and Quebec will represent over a third of our society. Indeed, we as a society must think about how we will support those who are financially dependent on others and those who take care of other people. However, that reflection cannot take place in a debate on same sex spouses or unmarried opposite sex couples.
This debate has been going on for ten years in Canada. The first case dealing with same sex spouses was heard by the courts in 1990. Now, in the year 2000, we have a bill before us. The homosexual community and all the democrats who support it have been patient, since the debate lasted ten years.
I do hope that we have an extremely informed debate on the various forms of interdependence that exist in our society. I know that some of my colleagues, including the hon. member for Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, hope that this debate can take place. So do other Bloc Quebecois members, but the fact that such a debate has not taken place is no reason to vote against Bill C-23.
Bill C-23 is the result of a very clear understanding of the situation by decision makers, first because the courts have issued rulings and, second, because the Minister of Finance evaluated the costs of recognizing same sex spouses. We are well aware—and I will get back to this later on—that these costs are minimal.
However, the debate on the other forms of interdependency has not yet taken place. The law reform commission of Canada is just beginning to look at the issue. I know that the government is proposing to set up a joint parliamentary committee with Human Resources, Justice and Finance, so that all the departments involved in possible recognition of other forms of interdependency can use their expertise, and so that we, as parliamentarians and decision makers, can have access to as much information as possible.
I urge all my colleagues to vote in favour of the bill and to work towards equality and democracy for the following six reasons.
First, this is a bill that recognizes one of the most fundamental values in our society. Whether we are sovereignists or federalists, men or women, young or old, rich or poor, we all believe in equal treatment. That is what this bill is about.
Second, the courts of law, the supreme court in particular, have ruled that we, as lawmakers, could not continue to discriminate against same sex couples. That is why this bill is restorative.
Third, let us be clear, the government introduced an amendment in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. I was not in favour of the amendment, but it at least has the merit of removing any possible ambiguity. This bill in no way, shape or form has anything to do with marriage. Marriage according to the conventional, common law definition will continue to exist, and that is a very good thing.
Of course, I cannot guarantee that 10 or 15 years from now a court of law will not rule that it is discriminatory to limit the institution of marriage to the heterosexual community. I do not know, but what I do know is that, if a court of law rules that marriage is unconstitutional because it is limited to the heterosexual community, it will not be because of this bill. It will be because of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Fourth, according to the Department of Finance in the Rosenberg decision, this bill involves no substantial cost to the treasury.
Fifth, 70% of Canadians would like us to end the discrimination to which homosexuals are subject.
Sixth, last June, at the end of the session, the National Assembly, in the sort of unanimous gesture of which the house of the people is capable in the great moments of the community, passed Bill 32, which amended 28 statutes and recognized same sex couples.
This evening, for all these reasons, individually and collectively, if democracy is to mean anything and if we are to take pride in representing those who have put their faith in us, all members must rise and support Bill C-23 when the Speaker puts the question.