Canadian government opposes some gay survivor pension benefits
June 12 2004 12:00 AM ET
The Canadian government has asked Ontario's highest court to overturn a lower court decision saying the government wrongly denied pension benefits to survivors in same-sex relationships. The case has to do with Canada's decision in 2000 to include in the national pension plan gays and lesbians whose partners had died but to limit retroactivity to January 1, 1998. Gay plaintiffs filed a class-action suit arguing that the payments should go back to April 1985, when Canada granted gays and lesbians equality rights under its Charter of Rights of Freedoms. "From that day forward, all Canadians are equal," George Hislop, 77, a lead plaintiff said before Thursday's court hearing. "My companion (of 30 years) died 18 years ago, and I'm still waiting for a settlement."
In December the Ontario superior court of justice decision sided with gays and ordered the government to make back payments covering the 13 years between 1985 and 1998. The government appealed, and the Ontario court of appeals began hearing its arguments on Thursday. The hearing is expected to run through Friday. Government lawyer Paul Vickery said the legal, political, and social consensus that gay couples needed the same constitutional protection as opposite-sex couples only began to emerge in the mid and late 1990s. "There are very strong policy reasons why the courts should not attempt to view events of the past through modern-day eyes," said Vickery. "It would involve a distortion of the historical record."
It has been estimated that as many as 10,000 people would be affected by the decision if the benefits were made retroactive to 1985, for a total of $292 million owed. The government says just 1,500 people would be affected, representing $58 million. Hislop estimates he would get as much as $109,500 in principal and interest if the government loses its appeal. Gail Flintoft, chairwoman of the Canadian AIDS Society, said the government position doesn't make sense. "We don't understand why the federal government is choosing to spend a lot of money fighting against the rights of Canadians to be treated equally," Flintoft said. Canada has been at the forefront of rights for same-sex couples since the ruling Liberal Party government announced last year that it would introduce legislation legalizing gay marriage, perhaps next year after Canada's supreme court gives a nonbinding opinion on a tentative bill. Three Canadian provinces, accounting for about 70% of the country's 31 million people, allow same-sex marriage: Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.