Three Little Words: Celebrating the 20th anniversary of a landmark equality case
Peter Engelmann celebrates the 20th anniversary of Rosenberg v. Canada
The latest issue of Counterpoint, CUPE’s national quarterly newsletter, celebrates the upcoming 20th anniversary of Rosenberg v. Canada.
Twenty years ago, CUPE employees Nancy Rosenberg and Margaret Evans wanted their partners to be eligible for survivor benefits under the CUPE pension plan. CUPE supported them, and changed the definition of “spouse” in the pension plan to include same-sex couples. But the federal government would not allow the amendments to be registered under the Income Tax Act because the Act’s definition of “spouse” excluded same-sex couples.
Counterpoint recounts Nancy’s and Margaret’s decision to challenge that definition under s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and traces the progression of the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. Victory came in April 1998:
In April of 1998, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the words “or same sex” be read into the Income Tax Act definition of spouse for pension plans. These three little words marked a massive victory for lesbian and gay rights – and fueled the growing movement for equality for gays and lesbians across the country.
Nancy and Margaret were represented by Peter Engelmann, who told Counterpoint:
“By that point in time, I had been doing human rights law since the mid-1980s and it really felt like we – because it was a combined effort – that we had advanced the law,” he says. “It was wonderful to work with an employer that was progressive and wanted to be inclusive in its pension plan. I was elated for Nancy and Margaret – and also for gay men and lesbians who were in relationships and wanted to leave retirement benefits to their spouses.”
The victory was long in the making, Peter says, since the appeal decision was the deciding chapter in a series of related legal cases that did not conclude favourably over the course of the early-to-mid-1990s. But Nancy’s and Margaret’s case was different.
“It was because CUPE, as their employer, was trying to register its pension plan to allow same-sex spouses to receive benefits. CUPE was driving the litigation, and this made all the difference.”
CUPE’s support was key, as was the fact that Peter and his team were in front of a very “good bench” of progressive, active and intellectual judges who had loads of questions and were very engaged, he recalls. He says he had a very good feeling about it.
Still, with so much to celebrate, there is more to be done, Peter says.
“The LGBTTQI community is doing tremendous work on transgender rights and there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” he says. “Some of the worst cases of harassment I’ve ever been involved in as a labour lawyer, involve transgender individuals.”