By Sarah Buhler
Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005
On November 5, 2004, Saskatchewan became the seventh jurisdiction in Canada to recognize same-sex marriage. In a five-page written decision, Justice Donna Wilson of the Court of Queen’s Bench declared that the right to equality of persons in same-sex relationships is violated by their exclusion from the institution of marriage. As a result, the judge ordered that the definition of marriage in Saskatchewan be changed to include same-sex couples. The marriage challenge was brought by five same-sex couples: Erin Scriven and Lisa Stumborg, Lenore Swystun and Kelley Moore, James Hein-Blackmore and William Hein-Blackmore, Nicole White and Julie Richards, and Martin Bonneville and Edward Atkins.
While neither the provincial government nor the federal government opposed the application, it should be noted that neither level of government took pro-active measures to permit same-sex marriages in Saskatchewan, thereby forcing the couples to go before a judge to obtain a ruling. Given the overwhelming force of the judicial decisions from across Canada (including from the Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec Courts of Appeal), many people were disappointed that the federal and provincial governments forced this matter into court, rather than simply taking the initiative to change the law. The federal government argued that it could not take a position on the issue because the Supreme Court of Canada has not yet ruled on the issue of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the provincial government argued that since the definition of marriage is under federal jurisdiction, it had no authority to take it upon itself to authorize the issuance of marriage licences to same-sex couples. The judge disagreed, writing that both levels of government had a clear choice whether or not they would respect the equality rights of same-sex couples. As a result, she ordered that the two levels of government had to share $10,000 of court costs.
Besides Saskatchewan, equal marriage is now available in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and the Yukon. This means that 85 percent of Canada’s population now enjoys full marriage equality.
The couples, along with their families and friends, reacted to the decision with delight. “Marriage signifies societal recognition and affirmation of a relationship between two people who love each other and are committed to each other,” said Lenore Swystun, whose partner is Kelley Moore.
“It’s nothing revolutionary,” said Nicole White, who plans to marry her partner Julie Richards next summer. “I’ve found the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with.” Julie added: “My father was there when I proposed to Nicki. He said it was one of the happiest moments of his life. He’ll be thrilled that now he can be there for our wedding.”
“What this means to me is peace of mind,” said James Hein-Blackmore, who married William Hein-Blackmore in British Columbia earlier this year. “The day we were married was a great day of happiness. But not having our marriage recognized here in Saskatchewan was a great burden. Now I know that no matter what happens in our lives or our health, I can rest assured that my husband will have all the legal rights to handle things the way we want them.”
The first couple to legally tie the knot in Saskatchewan was Lisa Stumborg and Erin Scriven, who plan to change their surname to Beckwell (a combination of their mothers’ surnames). Lisa stated: “We are committed to one another and wish to be together for the rest of our lives. To me, the right to marry is important because we would like to have children and we see this as a way of solidifying our family.” The couple obtained their marriage licence minutes after the court decision was released, and were legally married the next day at a service at St. Thomas-Wesley United Church in Saskatoon before an enthusiastic crowd of family, friends and supporters. During the ceremony, the Minister, Reverend Margaret McKechney, noted, with a twinkle in her eye, that “no one has been able to show just cause why these two women should not be joined in marriage.” Indeed.
Sarah Buhler is a lawyer working at the law firm Seharfstein Gibbings Walen and Fisher in Saskatoon. She is committed to social justice issues and was thrilled to represent the couples in this challenge, along with her colleague, Greg Walen.