CANADA

A CLASH OF VALUES

Ontario’s NDP meets resistance as it tries to expand gay rights

D’ARCY JENISH June 13 1994
CANADA

A CLASH OF VALUES

Ontario’s NDP meets resistance as it tries to expand gay rights

D’ARCY JENISH June 13 1994

A CLASH OF VALUES

CANADA

Ontario’s NDP meets resistance as it tries to expand gay rights

Marde Vilarinho, a 19-year-old Toronto high school student and staunch Roman Catholic, went to Sunday mass on May 29—and then went home and had an argument with her mother. The cause of the dispute was a statement from Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic, read from the pulpit by parish priests throughout the archdiocese of Toronto. It urged the area’s 1.3 million Catholics—the largest English-speaking diocese in Canada—to oppose the Ontario government’s proposed same-sex rights bill that would, among other things, allow homosexual couples to adopt children. Ambrozic also urged Catholics to express their opposition by writing letters to their legislative representatives. While her mother agreed with the sentiments expressed in the archbishop’s letter, Vilarinho vehemently disagreed and refused to participate in the letter-writing campaign. “Gays and lesbians should have the same rights as normal couples,”

she said. “Society can’t tell them what to do.” The same-sex spouse bill, which faced a crucial second-reading vote in the provincial legislature likely this week, is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation introduced by Ontario’s New Democratic Party government—and amounts to the most sweeping charter of rights for homosexuals anywhere in Canada. It would amend 55 provincial laws and extend sick leave, pen-

sions, drug plan coverage and other employment benefits to homosexual couples by redefining the word “spouse” to include a partner of either sex. Attorney General Marion Boyd maintains that the changes are necessary to ensure that Ontario’s laws comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While gay activists and human-rights advocates support the bill, the leaders of the opposition Fiberal and Conservative parties, as well as a coalition of church groups, are adamantly opposed. As well, 10 NDP backbenchers voted against the bill on first reading and had shown no inclination, publicly at least, to switch sides on second reading. The legislation barely survived first reading on May 19 by a vote of 57 to 52.

While Ontario is moving to the forefront in extending homosexual rights, the federal government and several provinces are also grappling with the issue. Federal Justice Minister Allan Rock has said he plans to introduce amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act this fall that would explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. And the Canadian Human Rights Commission is currently investigating about 80 complaints from gays and lesbians, most of whom contend that they have been denied employment benefits due to their sexual orientation. But even though Ottawa is examining ways to extend employment benefits to same-sex couples, the Liberals are moving much more cautiously than Ontario’s New Democrats. “I don’t favor the approach that involves redefining family and spouse,” Rock said. “I think it’s unduly provocative.” Elsewhere, Quebec and Alberta are moving in opposite directions on same-sex benefits. The Quebec Human Rights Commission released a report last week containing 41 recommendations and calling for legislative changes “to allow members of a same-sex couple to benefit, with full equality, from pension, retirement and insurance plans or any other social benefit plan.” In Alberta, an Edmonton judge ruled on April 12 that the province’s human-rights code violates the charter because it does not prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. She ordered the commission to begin taking complaints of discrimination from gays and lesbians. The government appealed the decision. Labor Minister Stockwell Day said that he opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation in the human-rights code because it could lead to spousal benefits and adoption rights for gay couples. “This is Alberta,” he

said, “and I don’t sense that I have a mandate from my constituents that they would like those things to happen.”

For Ontario’s gays and lesbians, the samesex bill represents the culmination of a decade-long fight. Susan Ursel, a 35-year-old Toronto lawyer and lesbian, said that besides being excluded from many employment benefits, homosexuals cannot make medical decisions affecting their partners in emergency situations because the law does not recognize them as spouses. Nor do the province’s estate and succession laws recognize gay partners for the purposes of inheritance. Ursel said that if a homosexual dies without preparing a will, family members can intervene to prevent his or her partner from inheriting the estate. Adoption is also off-limits to homosexual couples, even when their partner is the biological parent. “There are gay and lesbian couples who would like to adopt children to offer the benefits of a household, family and loving parents,” said

Ursel. “They’re not allowed to do that.” With passage of the bill far from certain, homosexual activists mounted a major lobbying campaign. The Toronto gay community organized the Campaign for Equal Families in early May after learning that Boyd planned to introduce the bill on May 19. By last week, when debate on second reading began, the coalition had received 11,000 letters from local gays and forwarded them to MPPs from all three parties.

On the other side, Ambrozic and several other Ontario bishops argued that the bill endorses conjugal relations between homosexuals, contrary to church doctrine, which stipulates that homosexuals should remain celibate. Ambrozic also instructed priests at the 215 parishes within the archdiocese

of Toronto to have pens and paper available at the entrances to churches on Sunday, June 5. Letters written by parishioners after attending mass that morning were to be collected and mailed in. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian congregations throughout Ontario also signed petitions against the bill.

Many of the opponents of same-sex benefits, particularly the Catholic bishops, insist they are defending Christian principles and deny they are encouraging prejudice against homosexuals. Bishop John Sherlock of the diocese of London said the Catholic Church opposes the currently prevalent attitudes that say people need not comply with any code of conduct. He added that churches have a right to express their positions in a democratic society, and an obligation to do so as teachers and defenders of Christian morality. “We think it’s a very dangerous

step socially to change the definition of marriage,” said Sherlock. “Marriage is established by nature, which means God.” However, the bishops face a small but vocal opposition within the church. Several groups of gay, lesbian and bisexual Catholics, along with the pro-gay-rights Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics, planned prayer vigils outside several Toronto churches to protest Ambrozic’s stand. Brad Colby, 29, a master’s student at the Toronto School of Theology and an openly gay Catholic, said opponents will ask parishioners to sign counter-petitions and display banners bearing a message from St. Paul: “Are we not all members of one body?”

Among some Catholics, Ambrozic’s foray into the battle over same-sex benefits touched off intense speculation about church politics. Suzanne Scorsone, director of communications for the archdiocese, insisted that the archbishop had decided on his own initiative to enter the debate. But Colby said that an official in the diocese told him that the Vatican had pressured the archbishop to make a clear statement reaffirming church guidelines. He said many liberal Catholics believe that conservative factions, such as right-tolife groups, may have asked the Vatican’s Ottawa-based representative in Canada, Archbishop Carlo Curis, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome— which monitors church dogma—to approach Ambrozic. Colby said Ambrozic’s letter to parish priests was hastily prepared and faxed to them in confidence two days before it was to be read. As well, he z said, the language was remarkably I similar to a recent Vatican letter I condemning homosexual-rights ^ legislation proposed by some European governments.

Despite the controversy generated by his letter, Ambrozic turned down all requests for interviews. And church officials said they had no idea how many Catholics would respond to his directives. But, as the bells rang to announce a midweek mass at St. Basil’s Roman Catholic Church in downtown Toronto last week, it was apparent that many of the faithful support his position. “I oppose this bill altogether and I am going to write my MPP,” said one woman as she rushed up the steps. Mimi Andrews, a 59-year-old office manager and grandmother from Sudbury, said: ‘Two women or two men can live together as very good people, but not as parents. I feel the traditional family unit is threatened by this legislation.” Those fears may loom large in the minds of Ontario legislators as they prepare to cast their votes this week.

D’ARCY JENISH