By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
OTTAWA -- The first count of Canada's same-sex couples will be released today in what experts suggest will be the most hotly debated numbers to spin out of the latest census and into the question of how the country defines a marriage.
Sociologists and gay-rights groups are already suggesting that the count, released as part of a collection of family and household statistics, will be lower than the national reality because gay and lesbian couples, especially in rural areas, are unwilling to trust the government with their private living arrangements.
But Jerome Ryckborst, a technical writer in Vancouver who filled out the related questions, said that his nervousness about giving the information was outweighed by the political message it sends.
"It does feel risky," he said, "but the need for our community to grow up, stand up and be counted outweighs the personal concerns. The Charter of Rights will protect us if the government goes over the deep end."
The new census tally comes just as Ottawa is to begin public consultations on the definition of marriage, following two court rulings in Quebec and Ontario that found the present law, which requires that the union be between a man and a woman, discriminates against same-sex couples.
Justice Minister Martin Cauchon is expected to release a discussion paper this fall, outlining the options to consider. The government meanwhile is appealing the Ontario court decision, which came first.
Whatever the political arguments they foster, experts who study the census say the numbers should not be taken as an absolute count, but more as a base line, whose accuracy will be bolstered in future national surveys.
The 2001 census allowed couples to note that they were common-law and same-sex, an option not previously included on the form.
It did not ask individuals within the family to give their sexual orientation, since one family member fills out the form for the rest.
Before releasing the figures, Statistics Canada compared them to the findings of another social survey due out in December. But a spokesperson for the department said that with first-time questions, and the self-reporting nature of the census, future counts will build a more definitive picture.
In the United States, for instance, the tally of same-sex unions increased about 300 per cent from 1990 to 2000, partly because of a change in questions and partly because it is believed people felt more comfortable answering them.
Kathleen Lahey, a law professor at Queen's University specializing in tax and fiscal policy, said the census figure, even if it is a minimum number, is important because it will provide researchers with a statistic not previously available.
But she observed that the census figure is obscured by several issues: confusion over the definition of common-law from province to province, the possibility of conflict between members of a couple over how they should answer, and fear that the information could be manipulated by the government.
John Fisher, executive director of the gay-rights lobby group Égale observed: "This is a government that only a few decades ago collected names to fire gays and lesbians from the public service. And even today, they sit across from us in the courtrooms."