Warning message

Please note that this page is from our archives. There may be more up-to-date content about this topic on our website. Use our search engine to find out.

CUPE and Equality Issues:

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is Canada’s largest union with more than half a million members. Our members work for school boards, hospitals, municipalities, universities, public utilities, homes for the aged, day-care centres, children’s aid societies, libraries, transit systems, emergency services and other publicly funded employers. We also have members who work for private companies, including airlines. CUPE was formed in 1963. We have over 70 regional and area offices across Canada and a staff of more than 700 people. Our National Office is in Ottawa.

CUPE’s membership is diverse. The majority of our members, approximately

60 percent, are women. We represent workers of colour, Aboriginal workers, workers with disabilities, and workers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT). As a Union, we have a duty to represent the interests of all of our members and that includes the concerns of LGBT people.

CUPE is firmly committed to the advancement of equality issues in our workplaces, union, and in society at large. We have adopted as official policy an Equality Statement (attached) that reflects our commitment to fighting all forms of harassment and discrimination including sexism, racism, homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia.

The workplace has the potential to be a site of oppression for LGBT workers especially when supervisors and coworkers harbour negative attitudes of homosexuality. As a result, LGBT workers sometimes devise strategies to avoid the discrimination, harassment and violence that can arise from anti-LGBT sentiments; common strategies include pretending to be heterosexual, not speaking about one’s significant other, and excluding one’s partner from workplace social functions. The social pressure to remain “in the closet” is a tremendous and unnecessary stressor for LGBT workers and inhibits the ability to reach one’s potential at work.

The negative mental and physical health consequences exhibited by those who have experienced discrimination and harassment based on their sexual orientation has been well documented (Otis and Skinner, 1996; Savin-Williams, 1994). Victims report a range of symptoms from the relatively innocuous such as headaches and insomnia to the more debilitating such as ulcers, depression and thoughts of suicide. Harassment and discrimination also take a toll on employers in terms of decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, high staff turnover, and an often lengthy process of conflict resolution, all of which result in increased operating costs, including increased health care costs.

CUPE’s ongoing commitment to the advancement of equality issues is reflected in our collective agreements. We have successfully negotiated provisions, for example, that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many of our collective agreements contain comprehensive no-discrimination clauses, provide for an inclusive definition of “spouse” and “family” to include same-sex partners, and provide for a range of benefits to same-sex couples including accessibility to medical, dental and pension benefits, and bereavement leave.

CUPE collective agreements comply with provincial human rights legislation in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of the listed grounds enshrined under law, such as prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation. However, CUPE agreements go further than what is provided for under human rights legislation. For example, CUPE local 3903, York University, has negotiated language that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Currently in Canada discrimination on the basis of gender identity is expressly forbidden in one jurisdiction only, that being the Northwest Territories. The Ontario Human Rights legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity under the prohibited ground of “sex”.

“Gender identity is not an enumerated ground in the Code. However, the existing legal structure in the Code can support a progressive understanding of the ground of ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity’ and protect individuals who are subject to discrimination or harassment because of gender identity” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2000: 1).

CUPE 3903 and York University’s clause prohibiting gender identity discrimination was in force several months before the NWT prohibition came into effect. CUPE and the wider labour movement in Canada are recognized as leaders in advancing equality rights not only in our workplaces but also socially and politically. The labour movement has been instrumental in the struggle for human rights’ protections in legislation and in our collective agreements with employers.

Much of CUPE’s political and educational work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues is the domain of the National Pink Triangle Committee (NPTC). The NPTC was formed in 1991 and is comprised of activist CUPE members from across Canada. One of the Committee’s goals is to work toward an inclusive society wherein LGBT persons are treated as equal citizens.

Education is key to the work of the NPTC. For example, the Committee helped develop a workshop for union members on LGBT issues. The Pride in CUPE Workshop serves to explode the myths and stereotypes that portray LGBT people negatively. The Workshop also attempts to demonstrate that since homophobia and heterosexism, like all belief systems, are learned, so too can such harmful ideologies be unlearned through education.

CUPE’s Position on Same-Sex or Equal Marriage:

In its discussion paper released November 2002, the Justice Department outlined four options to address the question, “what should marriage look like in Canadian law?” Those options include retaining the opposite-sex definition of marriage; creating an “equivalent” to marriage for same-sex couples, such as civil union or domestic partnership; legislating equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay Canadians; or, the creation of a registration system for all conjugal relationships in which marriage would be a strictly religious ceremony. Under this latter option, federal jurisdiction over marriage would cease to exist and civil marriage would be abolished.

CUPE has adopted the position that true equality for lesbian and gay Canadians logically entails the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples. We view the current restriction on equal marriage as discriminatory for it denies a segment of our population access to a legal, religious and social institution that is otherwise extended to the majority of Canadian citizens. Many people regard marriage as lending legitimacy to our most intimate of relationships as it is imbued with social, cultural, and symbolic significance. To achieve equal citizenship under the law it is paramount that marriage be extended to same-sex couples. Hence, CUPE asks the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to recommend the federal government pass legislation that would redefine the opposite-sex meaning of marriage thereby extending the choice to marry to same-sex couples.

The prohibition against same-sex marriage conveys the message that lesbian and gay relationships are inferior to heterosexual relationships. It also conveys the message that discrimination against lesbian and gay Canadians is acceptable and warranted. This is a dangerous message because discrimination is part of a continuum of abuse that also includes harassment and violence. In fact, discrimination is the impetus for the harassment and violence that many LGBT people endure based on their sexual orientation, from verbal abuse and threats to physical assault and even the occasional murder (see Courtney, 2003 for an overview of the empirical literature on anti-gay/lesbian violence).

Same-sex couples that desire marriage want to be treated with dignity and respect – we all do. They are not looking for “special treatment” under the law. Same-sex couples want to marry for all the same reasons that opposite-sex couples do; namely, to publicly celebrate our love and commitment to family, friends and the community (see MacLeans, August 12, 2002: 46-47); but it’s also about more than that. There is no qualitative difference in the love shared between two people, whether those two people be a man and woman, two women, or two men. We know that our relationships are valid. The extension of marriage rights would enhance the validity of our relationships throughout Canadian society thereby helping to bring an end to the discrimination we endure. We dare to dream of a time when our children are not bullied and harassed at school because their parents are of the same sex; we dare to dream of a time when our families accept our relationships as loving and committed and not as a “passing phase” or “alternative lifestyle.” For us, marriage is about equality, choice and ending the discrimination we know all too well.

Maintaining Discrimination:

1. The Status Quo

Responsibility for marriage is divided between the federal government and the provinces. The federal government has jurisdiction over the definition of marriage which, at present, has an exclusively opposite-sex meaning. The provinces are responsible for the administration of marriage, for example, the issuance of marriage licenses. Same-sex couples in Canada are unable to legally marry due to the common law definition of marriage as the lawful and voluntary union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. However, federal law neither allows nor prohibits same-sex marriage.

Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is one option proposed by the Justice Department. Under this option, equality rights for same-sex couples would be achieved, as they would be provided with the choice to marry. This is the preferred alternative but the Justice Department has put forth other options.

One of these options would result in the status quo: marriage would remain an opposite-sex institution. Under this option parliament could decide to put into law an opposite-sex definition of marriage. However, this option is problematic for it fails to address the equality concerns of LGBT Canadians. As the Law Commission of Canada so aptly put it:

“(T)he status quo reinforces the stigmatization felt by same-sex couples. If governments are to continue to maintain an institution called marriage, they cannot do so in a discriminatory fashion” (2001: 130).

Legislating the opposite-sex requirement for marriage would undoubtedly bring more court challenges by equality seeking groups. As Canadians well know, recent court decisions in Ontario and Quebec found the opposite-sex requirement for marriage violates the equality guarantees enshrined in the Canadian Constitution and is, therefore, discriminatory.

2. Marriage “Equivalency”

Parliament could also choose to create a new civil union or partnership registry for same-sex (and opposite-sex) couples. However, this approach would convey the sinister message that LGBT Canadians are second-class citizens and are therefore unworthy of marriage:

“The introduction of a registration scheme should not be seen as a policy alternative to reforming marriage. Registration schemes in lieu of allowing same-sex couples to access marriage are seen, by those in favour of same-sex marriage, as creating a second-class category of relationships” (Law Commission of Canada, 2001: 130).

In the Ontario equal marriage ruling, Justice Laforme referenced Egan v. Canada in arguing that this option would entail the creation of a segregationist regime for lesbian and gay couples:

“One cannot avoid the conclusion that offering benefits to gay and lesbian partners under a different scheme from heterosexual partners is a version of the separate but equal doctrine. That appalling doctrine must not be resuscitated in Canada four decades after its much-heralded death in the United States” (103).

The creation of an “equivalent” to marriage for same-sex couples would perhaps satisfy those who believe that marriage ought to be the exclusive preserve of heterosexual couples; however, it would not satisfy equality seekers and the ongoing legal challenges would continue.

This option would also add nothing new to the legislative landscape; this is because lesbian and gay couples already have a majority of the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by opposite-sex married couples. For example, the passing of Bill C-23, the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act 2000, provided equality for LGBT Canadians in over 68 federal laws. Yet, lesbian and gay Canadians are still denied access to marriage.

3. Abandoning Marriage

The final option detailed by the Justice Department discussion paper would see the federal government getting out of the marriage business altogether. Under this scenario all federal law pertaining to marriage would be repealed. Marriage would be replaced by a registry system for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The new registry would replace marriage, civil union, and domestic partner registries in all provinces and territories. Religious institutions would retain the authority to decide whether or not to perform same-sex marriages.

It is difficult to imagine that Parliament would seriously consider this option. By getting out of the marriage business the federal government would be sending the ominous message that it would be better to abandon marriage than to allow lesbian and gay Canadians the right to marry. As equal marriage rights activist Joe Varnell stated in an interview with MacLeans:

“(I)t would be a disappointing option for us because they would be saying that rather than pollute the institution of marriage with same-sex couples, they’d prefer to pick up their toys and go home” (August 12, 2002: 46).

Abandoning marriage would perhaps generate new legal battles from those who would view this option as the pursuit of a discriminatory objective on the part of the federal government to deny lesbian and gay Canadians the right to marry. The option to abandon marriage might also provoke a backlash against the lesbian and gay community – a community that continues to endure discrimination, prejudice and intolerance – from those who would blame LGBT Canadians for causing the collapse of one of our most cherished institutions. This is not the intent of equality seekers. Lesbian and gay Canadians demand equal access to marriage because marriage is the social, religious and legal institution that lends social support and acceptance for the love that two people share, whether those two people happen to be a man and woman, two women, or two men.

Arguments for Maintaining Marriage Discrimination:

1. Religious Freedom

CUPE is all too well aware that there is opposition to same-sex marriage amongst some parliamentarians, religious groups, and other groups and individuals. There is the perception, for example, that religious institutions would be forced to perform same-sex marriages if marriage rights were extended to lesbian and gay Canadians. This is not the case as pointed out by both Justice Laforme in Halpern v. Canada and by the Law Commission of Canada:

“I find that there is no merit to the argument that the rights and interests of heterosexuals would be affected by granting same-sex couples the freedom to marry … I cannot conclude that freedom of religion would be threatened or jeopardized by legally sanctioning same-sex marriage. No religious body would be compelled to solemnize a same-sex marriage against its wishes and all religious people – of any faith – would continue to enjoy the freedom to hold and espouse their beliefs” (Halpern v. Canada, 2002: 118).

“(C)ivil recognition of same-sex marriage does not alter the right of religious denominations to perform wedding ceremonies without state interference according to the values and traditions of their faith. While the state could recognize same-sex marriages for the purposes of civil marriage, it could not take any position on religious marriages. As is the case now, some religious institutions would choose to sanctify same-sex unions as marriages, while others would not” (Law Commission of Canada, 2001: 131).

Religious freedoms are protected under the Charter. Religious institutions have the right to regulate who they marry; for example, some churches will not marry divorcees, others refuse to perform interfaith marriages. If equal marriage were allowed, religious institutions would have the ability to choose whether or not to perform same-sex marriages – they would not be forced to do so. But the separation of church and state in a secular, pluralistic society cuts both ways. Just as the state does not attempt to influence the affairs of religious institutions it is our belief that religious teaching and dogma should not be a basis for guiding and formulating Canadian social policy.

2. Procreation

Our detractors seek to deny us equal marriage rights by availing of the procreation argument. Yet, the sole purpose of marriage is not based upon procreation as the Law Commission of Canada has pointed out:

“People may marry even if they cannot or do not intend to have children. The purposes that underlie contemporary state regulation of marriage are to provide an orderly framework in which couples can express their commitment to each other and voluntarily assume a range of legal rights and obligations. The law also attempts to provide for an orderly and equitable resolution of married spouses’ affairs if their relationships break down” (2001: 129).

In the Ontario equal marriage case, Justice Laforme also ruled the procreation argument is insufficient to continue marriage discrimination.

“I do not accept that the objective of procreation is a basis that can support the restriction against same-sex marriage. Rather, it could reasonably be argued … that it appears to be a mere pretext used to rationalize discrimination against lesbians and gays” (114).

Not all married couples desire children and some, due to infertility, are unable to produce offspring; other couples choose to adopt. Many lesbians and gay men already have and raise their own children. Some of these children are the result of a previous heterosexual relationship, some are adopted, and still others are the result of new reproductive technologies.

3. The Family

Our critics also seek to deny us marriage rights by claiming – without reference to hard facts – that homosexuality is a threat to the traditional family unit, comprised of a father, mother and children, and therefore undermines social stability. However, there is no merit to this argument. Where’s the proof? The short answer is, there is none. This so-called “argument” is based, not upon empirical evidence, but rather upon fear, prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. Advocates of this position also fail to take into consideration that the traditional family unit is no longer the norm in Canada. The fact is the Canadian family is in flux and has been for the past two decades. 2001 Census data reveal the proportion of families with no children at home are increasing as are the proportion of common-law couples; household size is on the decline; and, more people are living alone. It is true that the traditional family unit is on the decline in Canada but it is ludicrous to blame this social reality on same-sex couples, who, according to 2001 Census figures, comprise a mere 0.5% of all couples in Canada.

4. Marriage as an Exclusively Heterosexual Institution

A parallel argument – again, based upon pure conjecture – is that same-sex marriage would undermine and devalue the institution of marriage. Yet, it is quite possible that legalizing same-sex marriage could have the opposite effect:

“Lesbigay families are often stigmatized as abnormal and immoral and parents are denied the right to marry, ironically, at a time when concerns are raised about the decline of marriage itself as a binding force and fundamental institution. One could argue … that allowing those lesbigays who intend to enter into a stable, committed, and sexually exclusive marriage would reinforce the value of the institution of marriage itself” (Ambert, 2003: 14).

There is also the common misperception that lesbian and gay households do not provide a healthy, nurturing and stable environment for the rearing of children. These arguments are based not upon rigorous scientific research but rather on prejudice and misinformation. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that the children of same-sex couples will be maladjusted later in life, just as there is no scientific proof to show that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest their own or other’s children (see Ambert, 2003: 12).


CUPE, like many other equality and social justice groups, is extremely disappointed the federal government chose to appeal recent court decisions in Ontario and Quebec that found the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage was both discriminatory and unconstitutional. Instead of accepting the courts’ decision and extending full marriage rights to gays and lesbians the federal government has decided to spend even more taxpayer’s dollars at the appeal level in an attempt to continue marriage discrimination.

Recent public opinion research reveals that a majority of Canadians support equal marriage for lesbian and gay couples. A 2001 national survey conducted by the Environics Research Group reveals that over half (55%) either strongly or somewhat support allowing same-sex couples access to marriage. The same survey also found that approval of homosexuality has doubled since 1996 with 44% of Canadians approving strongly or somewhat. Approval was highest among women, younger people, those with higher incomes and those with post-secondary educations. Disapproval of homosexuality was highest among men, older people and those with low education levels. The Environics survey also found marked differences in the disapproval of homosexuality amongst Canada’s federal political parties. Disapproval was highest amongst supporters of the Canadian Alliance at 58% followed by the Progressive Conservatives (41%), Liberals (34%), NDP (32%), and Bloc Qubcois (9%).

Same-sex marriage is permitted in but two countries – the Netherlands and Belgium. Now, Canadians have been given the unique opportunity to embark on a most revolutionary and progressive path to full equality rights for a segment of our population that knows all too well the pain of discrimination. We see the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples as a natural step in the evolution of equality rights in Canada. Equal marriage for lesbians and gay men will one day be a reality in Canada, whether now or in the future. All it will take is a willingness on the part of Parliament to take leadership on this issue and treat all Canadian citizens equally.


Ambert, Anne-Marie (2003,) “Same-Sex Couples and Same-Sex Parent Families: Relationships, Parenting, and Issues of Marriage.” The Vanier Institute of the Family.

Courtney, Joseph C. (2003) “Gay Men at Work: A Qualitative Study of Workplace Anti-Gay Violence in St. John’s, Newfoundland”, unpublished Master’s Thesis.

Department of Justice Canada (November 2002), “Marriage and Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Unions: A Discussion Paper.”

Environics Research Group (May 10, 2001) “Most Canadians Favour Gay Marriage; Approval of Homosexuality Continues to Increase”, available online at http://erg.environics.net/

Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) (July 12, 2002) “Ontario Court Releases Landmark Judgment: Same-Sex Couples Have Equal Right to Marry”, press release.

Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) (July 17, 2002) “Ontario Same-Sex Marriage Decision”, fact sheet.

Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) “Equal Marriage Q & A”, available online at www.egale.ca

Greenbaum, Mona (2002), “A Question and Answer Guide About Civil Unions and Parental Rights and Responsibilities.” Lesbian Mothers Association of Quebec.

Halpern v. Canada (Attorney General), ONSC, 68400; 392001 (2002-07-12)

Law Commission of Canada (2001), “Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing and Supporting Close Personal Adult Relationships.”

MacLeans (August 12, 2002) “It’s About Love: A Pioneering Gay Couple Defends Same-Sex Unions”, 46-47.

Ontario Human Rights Commission (2000), “Policy on Discrimination and Harassment Because of Gender Identity.”

Otis, Melanie D. and William F. Skinner. (1996). “The Prevalence of Victimization and Its Effect on Mental Well-Being Among Lesbian and Gay People.” In, Journal of Homosexuality. 30.3, 93-117.

Savin-Williams, Ritch C. (1994). “Verbal and Physical Abuse as Stressors in the Lives of Lesbian, Gay Male, and Bisexual Youths: Associations with School Problems, Running Away, Substance Abuse, Prostitution, and Suicide.” In, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 62.2, 261-269.

Statistics Canada, The Daily (October 22, 2002) “2001 Census: Marital Status, Common-Law Status, Families, Dwellings and Households.”

opeiu 491