Workers win equality for same-sex spouses

July 15, 2018

On July 15, 1996 federal government workers in same-sex relationships finally received the same workplace benefits as their co-workers had been receiving for partners and spouses of the opposite gender. Equal access to pension, health care, dental and other spousal benefits was finally won after years of struggle by lesbian, gay and bisexual workers who, backed by their unions, took action in the courts, at human rights tribunals and in the streets.

Stanley Moore and Dale Akerstrom were both employees of the federal government. Moore was a Foreign Service Officer, employed by the Department of External Affairs, while Akerstrom was working for the Canadian Employment and Immigration Commission.

In 1991, Moore was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Indonesia. When he applied for spousal benefits related to the move for his partner, Pierre Soucy, he was denied on the grounds that Soucy was not considered a spouse because he was the same gender as Moore.

In 1992, Akerstrom applied to change his benefit status from single to family to make his partner, Alexander Dias, his beneficiary for death benefits and his spouse under the Public Service Health Care Plan. He was denied because, under the terms of the plans, spouse was defined as a person of the opposite gender.

Both men filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which ruled in their favour, based on a 1992 ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal (in the case of Haig v. Canada) that deemed discrimination based on sexual orientation to be prohibited under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The ruling stated it was “crystal clear that the law is that denial of the extension of employment benefits to a same-sex partner which would otherwise be extended to opposite-sex common-law partners is discrimination on the prohibited ground of sexual orientation.” The federal government was found to have discriminated against Moore and Akerstrom, was ordered to stop using the definition of spouse and to compensate both men.

In another case, Egan v. Canada, the Supreme Court unanimously endorsed a lower court’s finding that sexual orientation is a prohibited ground of discrimination under s. 15 of the Charter.

The federal government was out of options. In May of 1996, legislation was passed to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act by including “sexual orientation” to its list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. That change came into force on July 15, giving all federal government workers the same rights to benefits.

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