November 7, 2003

Nunavut decides against same-sex marriage ceremonies

But courts could be allowed to grant same-sex divorces


Premier Paul Okalik says that if Parliament and the Supreme Court change federal law to allow same-sex marriages, then Nunavut will comply. (FILE PHOTO)

Nunavut will not perform same-sex marriages unless compelled to do so by federal law, Premier Paul Okalik said in the legislative assembly last week. However, he added, the territory will recognize same-sex unions performed outside its boundaries.

"If developments in the Parliament of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada result in the definition of marriage being broadened, we will respect the law and comply with that," he said in a minister's statement Oct. 31.

"In the meantime, anyone in Nunavut who has been legally married anywhere will be recognized by the Government of Nunavut as married."

That means same-sex couples married in jurisdictions that allow such unions, and who move to Nunavut, would theoretically be entitled to tax benefits as married couples, and may be able to adopt children.

Furthermore, Nunavut's court system could be called on to perform divorces and divide assets.

Okalik made the announcement as part of a routine update on the federal legislation, and possibly also to deflect questions regarding an Evaz Group contract in Rankin Inlet, which has been the focus of question period for the past two weeks.

And, predictably, a number of MLAs, and even cabinet ministers, rose in the House to take issue with the GN's non-confrontational stand.

Manitok Thompson, the minister of education, said during a member's statement that she suspected federal politicians were being offered bribes to support the same-sex legislation.

"Mr. Speaker, I think that at times, there are bribes for yes votes, to my knowledge," she said.

Uriash Puqiqnak, the MLA for Nattilik, rose this past Monday to tell his fellow members in an impassioned member's statement that there was no homosexuality among early Inuit.

"We would go hunting, male to male, and we didn't think about anything else except hunting."

Puqiqnak embraced Rankin Inlet North MLA Jack Anawak, his neighbour in the House, as a sign of friendship - emphasizing it was not a sign of romantic interest.

"I feel we don't have to agree with the people who are telling us to OK the legislation," he said.

But the federal legislation does not require the GN's consent. If the Supreme Court of Canada finds that the existing definition of marriage - a union between a man and a woman - violates equality rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Nunavut and all other jurisdictions in Canada will be bound by its ruling.

Still, many Nunavut MLAs believe the GN should be fighting the proposed legislation as it has opposed the federal gun legislation.

"Will the Premier be lobbying the federal government on that act? Which one is he going to support - Inuit people or the federal government?" asked Patterk Netser, MLA for Nanulik.

But the gun legislation is in conflict with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which says Inuit do not require a licence to hunt. And in creating obstacles to lawful hunting among Inuit, the federal gun legislation could threaten a traditional livelihood.

The same-sex marriage legislation, however, does not affect Inuit traditional rights, and does not create any economic obstacles to survival.

"The federal gun legislation affects the rights of Inuit - that's why we challenged it," Okalik said. "We have to represent our people. That's why we don't want to support same-sex marriage at this time."

The fear of Nunavummiut, which seems to be reflected in their MLAs, is that permitting marriage between gay couples will allow such relationships to thrive. And in Nunavut, that seems to be the same as threatening Inuit survival.

"Inuit had to survive all on their own and they tried to have morals. If the morals break down somewhere, the people might starve," said Quttiktuq MLA Rebekah Williams, in trying to explain why Inuit seem to be so opposed to gay rights.

"It's something new," she said.

The issue is an important one for Williams, who has decided to listen to the residents of her three High Arctic communities - and oppose same-sex marriage - even though her more progressive personal beliefs are pulling her the other way.

"This is my work. I have tasks to do and I will boldly, with courage, bring forward my constituents' concerns and wishes," she said.

However, like Okalik, she said she will obey the ruling of the Supreme Court. But if Nunavummiut are to follow, she added, there must be public education.

"We need to let people know fully, without emotions, that this is the law," she said.

"Like the Premier said, we're Canadians. We're part of Canada."