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Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 10:06 GMT

World: Americas

Canada tackles gay legal rights

Gay groups say the government moves are "encouraging"

The Canadian government is reviewing federal legislation to ensure that same sex couples have access to the same social and welfare benefits.

A court decision last year found that Canada's income tax act illegally excluded gay and lesbian couples from certain benefits.

The BBC's Sean Eckford explains what has brought on the decision
The Canadian Justice Minister, Anne McLellan, says the government is now trying to ensure other federal laws are in line with the ruling.

Justice Ministry officials say more than 50 laws might have to be changed.

She denies the government is planning any sort of omnibus legislation on gay rights.

For now, the definition of marriage would not be changed, officials say, but otherwise gay partners would be treated the same as common law couples under Canadian law.

Gay groups: 'Encouraging'

Earlier this month, one of Canada's largest gay rights groups, Foundation for Equal Families, announced that it would challenge 58 federal statutes covering issues such as pension and health benefits.

"This is the first time the government has suggested any commitment to treating same-sex couples equally across all areas of the federal law," commented John Fisher of Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (Egale).

"Obviously that's something that's very encouraging to us."

Public opposition

The last time the Liberal government of Jean Chretien turned its hand to expanding homosexual rights, to include protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1996, it prompted a torrent of public opposition.

Church leaders and lay groups have again vowed to campaign against any changes.

"We're concerned about how this will impact (on) the traditional view of the family," said William Kokesch, spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Also, a few Liberals have publicly challenged the government in the issue.

"I don't think it reflects Canadian society at large," says a dissident government MP, Tom Wappel.

Gay marriages feared

Some changes are already being made. Canada's immigration minister has included same-sex couples under the definition of families in a proposed new immigration act.

The treasury board president - the minister responsible for government employees - also says his department has been studying expanding spousal benefits to same-sex couples for some time.

Opponents of the changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act have warned that the current law changes are the first step towards redefining marriage.

But the government has made it clear it does not plan any changes in the definition of marriage.

Prime Minister Chretien says he does not consider any changes a top priority for the liberal government as it begins a new session of parliament next month.

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