OTTAWA — A Winnipeg couple say they’ll continue a decades-long quest to have their 1974 marriage recognized as Canada’s first gay wedding, after Manitoba’s human-rights tribunal dismissed their case Monday.
The provincial human-rights commission said it will appeal that ruling, on behalf of the couple.
A Unitarian church in Winnipeg married Richard North and Chris Vogel in 1974, and the couple sought a provincial marriage certificate shortly afterward. Officials denied the couple, because the law at the time restricted marriage to a man and a woman.
Since then, the couple has gone through court battles to guarantee shared health benefits for common-law same-sex couples. They’ve also organized protests, interviews and letter campaigns to get formal recognition for their wedding.
Vogel, 70, said it’s "mystifying" he still isn’t legally married to North, 66.
"This’ll take a moment of data entry in the Vital Statistics database, and I guess maybe they’ll send us a piece of paper saying they’ve done it, which will cost them a dollar. But apart from that, there’s nothing to this," he said.
In a decision rendered Monday by the Human Rights Board of Adjudication, Robert Dawson sided with the province’s arguments that recognizing the 1974 marriage would require a change in federal law.
"This complaint is not about human rights and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Instead, the complaint has more to do with administrative law," Dawson wrote.
The province had noted that a court ruling months after the 1974 marriage ruled that it didn’t qualify as a legal wedding under the existing laws. The province argued only the federal Parliament could retroactively change the definition of marriage.
"It is not open to a human rights adjudicator to overrule that finding," Dawson wrote, encouraging the couple to instead ask Ottawa to change the law.
"Without such intervention, a bizarre and embarrassing irony will persist," Dawson wrote. "It is neither fair nor just that the law refuses to recognize the 1974 marriage of a homosexual couple whose long-standing activism and advocacy have made it possible for same-sex couples of today to take for granted their right to marry."
But the couple said they’ve intentionally resisted involving Ottawa, believing it would be simpler to get a bureaucratic change at the provincial level rather than a bill passed in Parliament.
Vogel used to work in the provincial civil service, where he said ministers and deputy ministers regularly asked him to override existing rules. He doesn’t see why the bureaucracy, during any political party’s reign, hasn’t made an exception for him.
"I’m just aware of all the various ploys and tactics they use to try and put off difficult people," he said. "This has always been odd, always strange, always inexplicable — and always ‘no.’"
In a Wednesday statement, Manitoba Justice echoed its stance that Ottawa would have to change past laws.
"The federal Parliament has jurisdiction over who can lawfully marry and the provinces have jurisdiction over the process to solemnize a marriage," the department wrote. "Because capacity to marry falls within federal jurisdiction, Manitoba cannot unilaterally recognize Mr. Vogel and Mr. North’s marriage."
MP Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Centre), the federal Liberals’ adviser for LGBTTQ* issues, declined an interview request, as the couple had not approached him to intervene.
Vogel said he laments the amount of time and taxpayer money that’s gone into this commission complaint. But he also says the couple decided not to seek a second wedding after Canada legalized gay marriage in 2005.
"It was a lovely occasion, but we saw no need to do it again just because the government was being ugly."
The provincial commission has already decided to seek a judicial appeal, though it’s unclear on what grounds. Vogel is hoping for a more understanding hearing, saying Dawson seemed to side with the province from early on.
"He was quite hostile to the case from the very beginning," he said.
The couple filed their complaint with the commission in late 2015, originally on behalf of all same-sex couples married in Manitoba prior to the province’s September 2004 recognition of gay weddings, but the commission was not able to locate any other couples.
Updated on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 at 10:55 PM CST: changes name of church