June 28, 2013 • In web :: Features
Courts Rule on Rights for ‘Non-Traditional’ Families
Marta Balcewicz reports on the changing scope of family law in Canada.
Family law regulates one of our most basic social institutions: the family unit. Under the current law, this may include a longer-term relationship between two adults or the relationship between parents or guardians and children. The scope of what family law deals with has changed and expanded over the years. This is because society's idea of what a "family" is has changed and expanded. The age-old heteronormative model of the family, one rooted in narrow concepts like that the purpose of a family is to have children (no assisted reproductive technology allowed), that only male-female romantic relationships are legitimate, and that only couples that tie the knot are legitimately a family has slowly been eroded. Families under family law are now more broadly understood in terms of the behaviours and responsibilities between people, not their gender, their fertility, or whether they got a marriage license at City Hall.
Compared to the rest of the world, Canadian law has been quite progressive in recognizing and giving rights to families who do not fit the traditional mold of the male-female-married-couple-with-children. These "non-traditional" families include single parents, non male-female partners, individuals who wish to live as a couple but don't wish to marry, amongst others. For example, we were among the first nations to remove the gendered definition of marriage, so that it is no longer a union between a man and a woman, but a union between two people. We've also gone further than most nations in recognizing that unmarried partners—often referred to as common-law spouses—require protections and rights like those historically offered to married partners.
For young people today, this means a freedom in the choice of forming personal relationships unmatched by any time in Canada's history, and not found in most other parts of the world. The fact of legal recognition, however, is only a first step. When the law changes to accept, recognize, and grant rights to a certain group of people, there inevitably remain residual inequalities or areas that lawmakers overlooked or chose to leave unchanged. One of the means of addressing these problem areas is to challenge them in court, and this is precisely what people who feel the effects of the inequity in their daily lives do. This, further, is a task that today's younger generation must take on to ensure that new laws that get passed comprehensively provide for equality for the groups that they are meant to protect.
Two important decisions released by the courts in early 2013 offer an interesting picture of the legal landscape in Canada as it pertains to non-traditional families. They are also examples of the ways in which members of a group, in this case, non-traditional families, challenge laws that leave loopholes through which their rights are negatively affected.